A Man For All Seasons
Performed in the Unicorn Theatre 16 - 19 November 2016
by Robert Bolt
Caught between the demands of his king and his conscience, Thomas More chooses not to choose. Abingdon Drama Club's production of A Man For All Seasons does the play full justice. It is cast and staged exactly as its author Robert Bolt intended, hitting all the right emotional notes. Despite the tangled political and philosophical complexity of this historical drama, the audience is swept along by the dramatic narrative.
The play benefits from purposeful, high-quality production design and attention to detail. The iconic costumes gave the characters the solidity of a Tudor portrait gallery come to life. The relatively simple set design, sound and lighting is enough to create vivid atmosphere while allowing the scenes to flow easily into each other. These smooth seamless transitions are overseen by the Common Man, played with versatility in all his various guises (and accents!) by Tony Green, providing helpful introductions, information and an outsider's commentary on the play.
Jon Crowley is the absolute embodiment of Sir Thomas More, in appearance and in temperament. Unnervingly real, his understated self-certainty, benevolence, sharp wit, emotional integrity and occasional vulnerability are all perfectly depicted. His unfaltering determination to the last is both inspiring and tragic, and the moment of love and understanding he shares with his wife Alice (Jayne Henderson) near the end of the play brought tears to my eyes.
Thomas Cromwell (John Hawkins) and Richard Rich (Richard Wilson) both brought complexity to their roles, prolonging the period where we can retain some sympathy towards their characters, before becoming utterly loathsome as the play reaches its conclusion. Leon Witcomb as Archbishop Cranmer has developed irony as an art form: his small gestures and facial expressions often relieved the tension in the darker moments of the play.
Director Terry Atkinson's appearance as the volatile King is a defining moment of the first act. Overbearing and tempestuous, he owns the stage and everything on it and makes it daylight clear why this is a man not to be crossed, leaving a lasting impression that colours everything that follows.
This is a really faithful, honest production of the play. Bolt's writing is concise and elegant, and it was satisfying to see it so simply and powerfully presented by such a strong and talented cast.
Coral - Daily Info
Martyr or inquisitor? Hero or religious fanatic? Playwright Robert Bolt and novelist Hilary Mantel have offered different interpretations of the character of Sir Thomas More, Chancellor to Henry VIII.
Boltís play presents the conventional view of Thomas More as the catholic martyr with Thomas Cromwell depicted as the manipulative villain. Mantelís novel (and play adaptation) provides a revisionist view with Cromwell as the pragmatic statesman and protestant reformer and More as an unbending disciple of the old religion.
A Man For All Seasons is a very difficult play for an amateur group to put on, given its length and beautiful if dense language. Abingdon Drama Club presented a very absorbing version last week, which was rewarded by capacity audiences rediscovering a distinguished play.
Maintaining the pace of the drama is hard, especially on a small stage such as the Unicorn. Director Terry Atkinsonís decision to retain the pillars on the stage meant that the cast were very restricted in their movement and groupings. The set added to the difficulty with a small table and two benches placed awkwardly centre stage with raised blocks behind. It looked like a rehearsal set and too frequently, when lots of characters were on stage, they had to stand in a line or bunch together at the side. A different layout with a few pieces of more authentic Tudor furniture placed at the side or on the blocks would have helped the flow of the action. The impact of More in the Tower was lost as he was forced to lie at the side rather than centre stage.
The more intimate scenes involving pairs of characters worked better - for example the meetings between More and Cardinal Wolsey, Matthew, Moreís steward and More, Cromwell and Richard Rich, More and his wife and Henry VIII and More. There were some strong performances here from members in supporting roles. Chris Kendrick as the world weary Wolsey, Adam Blake as the blustering Norfolk and Jayne Henderson as Alice More, (an underwritten part) who loves her husband but does not understand his religious scruples. The brief but compelling appearance of Terry Atkinson as the monarch himself added a welcome highlight displaying both Henryís charisma and menace
If the set was problematic the costumes were totally authentic and the wardrobe team of Jane Cardigan and Susi Dalton deserve praise for dressing the cast so well. By the same token the sound effects by Mike Ward were very effective, particularly in capturing the lapping of the River Thames, the noise of a tavern and the charming music played in response to the King blowing a whistle. It would have been good to have had more Tudor music during the scene transitions and at the beginning and end of the play to reinforce the Tudor ambience.
In the penultimate scene depicting Moreís trial in Westminster Hall the Director made full use of the stage by having those in judgement sitting on the balcony, More on the stage blocks and Cromwell moving around interrogating him. A lighting effect conjuring up the windows of the Hall was an inspired touch.
The success of the playís performance ultimately depends on the playing of three key characters- Thomas More himself, Cromwell and the Common man. As More Jon Crowley gave an authoritative and subtle portrayal of the man, making the most of his humour as well as evoking his pathos in the later moving scenes with his family in the Tower. John Hawkins was a chilling and ruthless Cromwell, his performance building steadily to the climactic clash of wills with More in the trial scene.
The role of the Common Man in linking the scenes and providing the continuity of action is a key theatrical device in the play. Tony Green gave a masterful performance, morphing into different characters such as the the steward, boatman, tavern keeper and gaoler by adroitly changing accents. After the tragedy of the beheading at the end of the play, the Common man is still there and relieves the tension by reminding the audience it is good to be alive.