A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt currently at The Acorn Theatre until 3 March is an exceptional play about the value of one’s life and the hope of death when that value is removed. In the final decision to live a life of worth or die if one cannot, lies the honor of realizing one’s life has true purpose. The production by the Fellowship for Performing Arts promotes a superb iteration of Bolt’s work which posits interesting themes about self-worth, the rule of law, political cravenness and acts of conscience.
These heady themes are uplifted in this revival of Bolt’s work which examines Sir Thomas More’s conflict with King Henry VIII over the King’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn. More chose to follow his conscience and not the King’s feverish obsession to gain a male heir by putting away the barren Queen Catherine. When he took a stand that King Henry VIII interpreted as being against him, More knew the grave risks. Yet he held firm in his beliefs, maintaining his purpose and meaning for himself, an action which was used against him to advantage his enemies. Rather than to change his stance and support all the other powerful men who sided with the King, More followed his own conscience, martyring himself. He preferred to be in the afterlife with God, than in a physical existence among men abiding in lies and treason to his soul, a death far greater than any delivered by the executioner’s blow to his neck.
Bolt examines the strength required to abide in the grace of righteous beliefs even if it means dying for it, rather than follow the crowd to stay alive. The playwrite’s brilliant work written in the sixties seems especially trenchant in our times when lying to protect one’s physical life is no longer an art, but a gross and craven reality show in politics. This fine production of A Man for All Seasons seems more resonant than ever.
Bolt most probably took title which originated from an Oxford scholar Robert Whittington who in 1520 wrote, “More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity. A man for all seasons.” Perhaps Whittington may have been inspired by the Biblical scripture, 2 Timothy 4:2 (NKJV) “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.”
Bolt’s characterization of Sir Thomas More (Michael Countryman maintains a sensitive and thoughtful portrayal throughout) reflects the scripture and Whittington’s commentary. In Countryman’s rendering of More’s traits and interactions with his family, the King and Richard Rich, his foil and enemy, we understand the greatness of More’s mind and character.
Countryman also relays a profound appreciation of More’s humor and social affability. As Countryman presents More’s humility with the King (the effervescent and proud Trent Dawson), even though he disagrees with him we understand More’s sorrow at displeasing a man he loves. We also see the King’s sorrow that More is on a collusion course with the King’s soul. One of them will lose, the other will gain, and at that momentous juncture when the King visits More’s household, the actors and able direction reveal that there is no turning back for either man. It is an excellently rendered moment in the production, one of many that Director Christa Scott-Reed interprets and guides the actors to elicit.
Countryman, David McElswee as Richard Rich, Carolyn McCormick as Lady Alice More, Todd Cerveris as Thomas Cromwell Kim Wong as Meg are the principals who help establish the solid foundation upon which Bolt’s More rests. In various crucial scenes, the actors’ interplay heightens the stakes and pronounces the conundrum that More faces if he chooses conscience over king and loses everything he holds dear in the earthly realm to achieve a finer estate in the heavenly one.
In one particular example, the tension the cast creates when Meg, Lady Alice and Roper (Sean Dugan) tell More to have the pernicious Richard Rich arrested for being evil, we watch amazed as Countryman’s More defends McElwee’s Rich and upholds the law as paramount. Because of their acute sensitivity and the apt direction we understand how More is refining his position on the law to protect his own soul and, as Bolt perhaps wishes, we empathize and put ourselves in More’s shoes. Would we have the strength of character to follow the right and true dictates of our souls? Or would we as his family suggests he do use the law against others injudiciously and damn ourselves? Is such an action to uphold what is most precious important to us? Should it be? Bolt asks these intriguing questions and answers them by highlighting More’s difficult choices.
By the end of the play, McElwee’s Rich has become totally corrupted, rewarded for his betrayal of More by selling his soul for Wales. McElwee’s development from young man teetering on the brink of wickedness to world-hardened, wicked maturity having easily sold out a man he once greatly admired is well delivered. Both actors elicit the contrast between More and Rich beautifully. Rich achieves worldly power climbing from a lowly state upward and More moves in the opposite direction. But only More makes it to glory. Though Richard Rich dies peacefully in his bed unperturbed, unmolested by sending More to his beheading, More down through the centuries is venerated for his courage. He was canonized by the Church in 1935 and in 2000 Pope John Paul II named him “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.”
Countryman’s steadfast More, assisted by the ensemble’s excellence becomes especially powerful in the trial scene when More confronts his accusers, McElwee’s Rich, Cerveris’ Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer (Sean Dugan), his former dear friend The Duke of Norfolk (Kevyn Morrow) and the executioner who also plays The Common Man (Harry Bouvy). Presented with the lies that Rich has told about him, More answers vehemently for his innocence and affirms that his silence about the oath taking is acquiescence under the law which they have misinterpreted because they do not know the law. The scene especially enthralls for we know that as More counters Rich’ lies, the blade will fall. He is as he says, “a dead man.”
Countryman’s More is poignant as he maintains his domination and will when someone questions his surety that he will go to heaven. More’s reply is without fear or doubt, “God will not reject one so cheerful to go to Him.” We believe then that what More has suffered has a higher purpose. Indeed, Countryman’s portrayal of More uplifts with hope and inspires as Bolt most probably intended.
Bolt’s play is given a very fine rendering by The Fellowship for Performing Arts. The ensemble, shepherded by director Christa Scott-Reed depict Bolt’s characters with authenticity and engage us throughout. Countryman’s More comes off as a human saint. How Bolt shapes More’s development rising to glory as the king’s Lord High Chancellor and devolving to infamy as a traitor to kingdom and crown is the genius of the drama. The characterizations of More, his long suffering wife Lady Alice (Carolyn McCormick) and daughter Meg (Kim Wong) are superb and perhaps strongest in the prison scene when they see each other for the last time. As contrasts to the enlightened and saintly More, Richard Rich (McElwee) The Duke of Norfolk (Kevyn Morrow) and Thomas Cromwell (Todd Cerveris) reveal an edgy hardness as the play reaches its conclusion and More is condemned for treason. John Ahlin is exceptional as Cardinal Wolsey and Signor Chapuys. The latter attempts to wrangle with More about supporting Catherine of Aragon’s Queenly fate in Henry’s Kindgom.
The character of The Common Man (excellently played by Harry Bouvy) is absent in some productions of A Man for All Seasons. Bouvy’s portrayal of the lowly roles (Matthew-More’s servant, the executioner, etc.) is one we identify with readily. His pronouncement of the earthly ends of More’s enemies Cranmer, Cromwell, The Duke of Norfolk is ironic. His sardonic humor at relating where Richard Rich ends up for sending a good man to his death is the exclamation point of Bolt’s work. But upon further research (More’s standing in the UK and with the Church as a saint), we note that Sir Thomas More comes off as a hero. On the other hand Richard Rich (hyperbolic name, indeed) comes off as the craven, mendacious coward. One of the strengths of the play and of this production is in the comparison between Rich and Moore. Indeed, Bolt uses Rich as a foil to burnish More’s greatness.
In this social climate of up is down black is white, there are many in power who behave as Richard Rich using clever manipulation, lying and amorality to achieve their desires. Bolt, a professed agnostic, leaves the final judgment about such individuals up to God. In the last analysis without a Richard Rich, would More have been so glorified?
Of late Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall downplays Bolt’s perspectives about More. She establishes the more vilifying and intriguing points about his religious beliefs. In uplifting Catholicism against Lutheran Protestantism which was spreading at the time of the play set in England between 1526-1535, Mantel emphasizes that More employed torture. Additionally, to force heretics to recant their beliefs in Protestantism, he believed in burning heretics who refused to recant. Others have been critical of More. For example, James Wood in his book The Broken Estate, refers to him as “cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics.”
With controversial individuals like More, the jury is still out. However, with this production, the verdict is a resounding bravo. I especially enjoyed the John Gromada’s selection of music as Composer/Sound Design, and the staging and artistic of the production in its integration of the Scenic Design (Steven C. Kemp), Costume Design (Theresa Squire) and Lighting Design (Aaron Porter).
Man for All Seasons runs with one intermission at the Acorn Theatre (42nd Street between 8th and 9th) and is extended until 3 March. You can purchase tickets to see this fine production of Bolt’s great play at their website by CLICKING HERE.