Know this, Robert Bolt’s 1960 play, A Man for All Seasons, is a piece of superior drama with a lean script and not a word wasted. It stands among the best plays of the Twentieth Century. Cunningly constructed, Bolt’s play tells the necessary story of a man who, in this iteration of history, is personally heroic in the defense of his religious convictions in the face of monumental forces arrayed against him. Sir Thomas More was a staunch Roman Catholic in the time of Henry the Eighth, known to be an incorruptible man of honor, who steadfastly served his King as Lord Chancellor and his God until at last he could not in good conscience do both. He chose God and died for it, his head struck off by the executioner, as was the custom of the times. Eventually, in 1935, Pope Pius XI canonized him as a martyr.
In this play, More (the excellent Bruce Ladd) is a lawyer who seeks legal protection in the rule of law when his King (a vigorous, athletic Ian Michaels) demands that he support his desire to either annul or divorce his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, in his frustration over her inability to provide him with a male heir. After the Catholic Cardinal Wolsey (Greg Martin), Henry’s long time chancellor, fails to secure an annulment from the Pope in Rome, he is deposed. Thomas More, despite his well-known opposition to Henry’s desires, is elevated to Chancellor. How More struggles to find a path to safety for himself and his family is the dramatic action of the play.
As the necessary antagonist in the play, Thomas Cromwell (a viperous John Allee) is a Machiavel doing all he can to advance himself at the expense of More. Cromwell seduces the pliable Richard Rich (Mitchell Lam Hau), a peripheral More acquaintance, to help him plot against the newly named chancellor. Supporting him at home are his wife, Lady Alice (Treva Tegtmeier), his daughter Margaret (Elsa Gay), and her suitor William Roper (Isaac Jay), an amiable young man whose religious convictions waffle in the wind between Lutheranism and Romanism. His staunch friend, the Duke of Norfolk (Sean McHugh), supports him until he can’t. And the Spanish ambassador, Signor Chapuys (Vito Viscuso), plots to keep his countrywoman, Katherine, on her throne.
The plot lines of stress, politics and danger are complex. And this is where Bolt’s best theatrical device comes into play with a character called The Common Man (extraordinary Deborah Marlowe). This character is a Brechtian device that talks directly to the audience, wryly commenting on the action, while slipping back into the scenes as More’s butler, a boatman, a publican, a jailor, a juryman and, ultimately, the executioner.
Cast away any notions you might have formed from watching the television production of Wolf Hall that makes Cromwell a pragmatic hero and More seem a bit silly. The More in A Man for All Seasons is courageous, albeit in a way few of us could really understand or emulate.
Director Thom Babbes keeps the action brisk on an Elizabethan-style set by Rich Rose that functions well, with scene changes that consist of moving a few chairs, tables, props, and other hand-carried scenic devices that signal place and time. Lighting by Lisa D. Katz creates various moods and supports place and time, although occasionally the actors spend more time in the darker areas than I would like. Sound designer Juan Sanson helps set the scene with Elizabethan music that instantly calls the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to mind. Shon LeBlanc’s costumes are sumptuous and evoke the era with a few costumes, King Henry’s and Roper’s second act vestments, that have more than a little hint of modernism. The British accents are impeccable under the direction of dialect coach Adam Michael Rose. Eric White manages the stage.
The Actors Co-op Theatre Company’s production of A Man for All Seasons is absorbing, thrilling theatre, that packs an emotional punch exactly when it should. The show continues through April 15 at the Actors Co-op David Schall Theatre, 1760 N. Gower Street in Hollywood.