By Ruth Ross
It’s said that “silence can speak volumes,” an adage very true for Sir Thomas More, royal counselor and Chancellor of England, who was beheaded when he would not publicly support King Henry VIII in his quarrel with the Pope over his desire to divorce Queen Catherine and marry his paramour, Anne Boleyn.
It is precisely this predicament at the heart of Robert Bolt’s dramatic study of More, A Man for All Seasons, now being given an elegant, polished, intellectual production at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. For a play with little action and lots of talk, who knew that legal and moral calisthenics could be so enthralling?
The 1520’s in England were a time of religious ferment, perpetrated not by a king who truly wanted to reform the Church—as did Martin Luther and other religious activists—but to bend it to his carnal and political will. Devout Catholic More is caught between his obligations to the crown, his family and the tenets of the Church. Open disapproval would be an act of treason, but public approval would defy his strong religious beliefs. Therefore, More chooses silence, hoping that by staying quiet he can maintain his honesty and avoid the executioner as well.
Paul Mullin once again shows why he is one of STNJ’s most popular and successful directors. Comfortable with the material, he helms the conflict inexorably toward the denouement: More’s execution. He elicits convincing and natural performances from actors delivering weighty words of a different era and social class.
He has assembled a stellar cast too. Thomas Michael Hammond’s More (right, with Roger Clark, Kevin Isola and Brianna Martinez) is charming, witty, learned, affable in the opening scenes; it’s easy to see why he would be one of the King’s favorite courtiers. Yet in Act II, we see the man’s principles take over as he stubbornly refuses to even voice his support for the king, let alone sign a paper attesting to it. His pride is evident in his stern, rather stiff demeanor, even in the face of his family’s economic and social peril. He’s a man to admire and dislike at the same time! Delightfully learned and warm in the first act, More’s wife Alice (Mary Stilwaggon Stewart) and his daughter Margaret (Brianna Martinez) are heartbreaking as they suffer the slings of fortune resulting from More’s stubbornness. Martinez’s conversation with Thomas Cromwell in fluent Latin is especially enchanting.
Henry’s courtiers are a repulsive lot. Aaron McDaniel’s Richard Rich (left, with Kevin Isola) is a true lowlife; thin, sinister, he’s out only for himself. As Thomas Cromwell, James McMenamin, is deceit personified; Sean Mahan as Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, appears to act only in self-interest, supporting the King more for power than for religious reasons. As the Spanish king’s emissary and Catherine’s defender Signor Chapuys, Edward Furs unctuously tries to get in More’s good graces and dangerous when he eavesdrops to get “dirt” on More and his supporters.
Roger Clark is terrific as the vain Henry VIII, acting like a toddler when the Pope will not give him the annulment he requests. Ty Lane’s William Roper—Margaret More’s husband—is rather shifty as a man embracing Lutheranism only to revert to Catholicism to get what he wants, in this case Margaret’s hand in marriage. Anthony Marble’s Duke of Norfolk, while not as unprincipled as Richard Rich, is the quintessential courtier out for himself. Raphael Nash Thompson (right, with Hammond) is fine in the small but important role as Cardinal Wolsey.
But it’s Kevin Isola who steals the show! Donning different hats, he portrays The Common Man—More’s steward Matthew, a Thames boatman, a publican, a juror, a jailer, an executioner—moving fluidly around the stage as he offers pointed commentary on the nobility’s machinations and jockeying for power. His lower-class accent contrasts mightily with More’s elegant, measured and learned diction, and he adds a note of wry but pointed comedy to the stern proceedings.
Charlie Calvert’s spare set conveys the Tudor period with four grate-like panels backed by two tapestries; Michael Giannitti’s splendid lighting matches the mood of the action, as does Liam Bellman-Sharpe’s sound design. And Andrea Hood’s luxurious costumes—brocade and fur cloaks for the men, demure but lush dresses for Alice and Margaret, and those hats for The Common Man—wonderfully convey character and era.
It was a stroke of genius for STNJ to select A Man for All Seasons as one of this year’s productions. First produced in 1960, the play mirrors today’s religious culture wars and the conflict of conscience waged over such weighty subjects as abortion and marriage equality.
Sir Thomas More wrestled with his conscience and his faith, to his detriment and that of his family. His silence might have spoken volumes to him, but it enraged the King and served as a lesson to others that, to keep one’s head, it was better to go along to get along. During his trial, he explains that the law mandates that silence must be legally perceived as consent; therefore, More argues, he has not officially disapproved of King Henry. The argument avails him nothing: he is charged, convicted and executed for treason. (Hammond comforts Martinez on the eve of More's execution)
While the phrase, “a man for all seasons,” is often used to describe someone who is versatile, adaptive and able to thrive in any situation—which More appears to be in the beginning of the play—his later recalcitrance flies in the face of that definition. Perhaps Bolt meant it ironically: Sir Thomas More—later canonized by the Catholic Church—was really a man for one season: being true to his conscience, even if it leads to his death.
A Man for All Seasons will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, on the campus of Drew University through November 5. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5200 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.