July 25, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall
In his role of Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, now playing at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Eric Hill once again gives a subtly nuanced performance of a man of singular learning (and piety), self-true, with a personality defined by his conscience, stoic and brave, but affable, gentle, and loving.
As Chancellor of England, More steadily defies Henry VIII’s decision to sever himself from his wife Catherine of Aragon who has failed to produce an heir to the throne and seeks to to marry Anne Boylyn from whom he expects a brighter future.
As The Common Man (Walter Hudson), in ever changing roles, keeps reminding the audience, when royalty roars and the members of the Royal Court devise their schemes, that it is best to lurk low with bowed head.
Such information, delivered directly to the audience, is a Brechtian device, breaking the 4th wall and bringing the audience into a safe distance from identifying with More too much.
For More does not bow his head. He stands tall until, on the scaffold, he must put it on the block. Where, ironically, that Common Man (who within the play assumes so many distancing garbs) is the executioner.
Hall in the role, although worried even before the King (Gareth Saxe) floats on his great boat into More’s garden, is serene, friendly, and dignified.
It is a delightful scene with a jaunty, young Henry trying to cajole More into admiration of a tune he has composed. All surface friendliness, but suddenly, sensing More’s resistance, he hurries his departure.
It is a result of this encounter that Henry will make sure that More becomes Chancellor, a role in which he hopes to keep him in line.
However, early in the first act, More is essentially untroubled. He knows the law and feels, despite his religious convictions, he can escape the net Henry hopes to throw over him. We see him reassuringly buoyant with his family .
He jokes with his wife Alice (Diane Prusha) about the lavish meal she has prepared for the royal guest who failed to enter the house and devour a bite. She is unaware of how dire the situation can become but still, for some reason, is almost fearful.
Prusha during the course of the play gives us a carefully shaded role as gradually she comes to grips with the true dangers of More’s determination. She is hurt, but valiant, by the reduced circumstances and in her final scene, her deep love for this man, whose conscience she still cannot understand, is in the bowl of custard she brings to his cell, and her hurt grief when he, knowing her despair, praises it and her humble gown. One tiny moment of long-wedded love, beautifully played by both.
And by his daughter Margaret (Tara Franklin), also present in all the family scenes, who, understanding sooner than her mother and more than her mother understands, loves her father so deeply she will reluctantly place around his neck the chain of Chancellor, which will lead to his death sentence. Another role, minor but pivotal, beautifully delineated, full of grace and awareness, fear and love.
But the family scenes do not dominate. More must face the villains of the play, armed with his legal awareness and his conviction of what is right.
The villains are everywhere with the Common Man scurrying among them.
The direst (in terms of power) is the off-stage king, determined to have his way. But he has a diabolical agent in Thomas Cromwell (David Chandler). There is a snake-like playing of his role, agile and deadly.
And he grooms for evil the venal Richard Rich (Tommy Schrider) who, a nobody, but craving corruption, sells his soul gladly, betrayal after betrayal, for a fine coat and a minor post in Wales. Schrider’s ambition and evil is more repulsive than even Cromwell’s.
Even the Spanish Ambassador, (Thom Rivera) in the most elegant of all the elegant velvet coats and supposedly on More’s side, wants to hatch a plot in Scotland, which More calmly rejects.
The political cards are stacked against More from the beginning. The Common Man will keep us aware of that. Dukes and Cardinals will fawn with Kings. And a man must live, as best he can, in a world such as man finds himself in.
In such a world, a man of More’s convictions and fortitude cannot live. Yet the playwright, and Hill’s acting of the role, keep us distanced beyond tears. We can admire the man but not completely understand him, his ability to put his family through so much but having so much moral courage. The role demands a self-awareness, a detachment that keeps him calm in all moments.
All of these actors, and those not named, grace the production, well-directed by Richard Corley. The setting (great movable stone-like pillars, shifted agilely for the many scenes) soar, forbiddingly, over the action on the stage. The minimal staging evokes the river via the oar of the boatman.
The play is well worth seeing. Although its running time is a long, it is difficult to know what could be omitted because all is so worthy. It won a Tony on Broadway in 1962 and has been present often on film, TV, and in revivals. Indeed, as I write, the New York Times announces a revival.
And since New York is a long drive from the Berkshires, we are fortunate to have A Man for All Seasons playing in Stockbridge.