— Production poster
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
First out of the blocks as usual, United Players opens the 2015/16 Vancouver theatre season with a blast from the past, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960). The oldies among us probably remember it best from the 1966 film, which won Bolt an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation. The great Paul Scofield, who originated the title role of Thomas More in the play’s London premiere and played it again on Broadway, won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The movie also featured Orson Welles, John Hurt, Robert Shaw and a batch of other terrific performers. Probably the last time the stage play appeared in Vancouver was 1986 at the Playhouse, starring the magnificent William Hutt.
There is clearly no shortage of juicy (male) roles here, and William B. Davis’ United Players production features some dynamic acting, most importantly from Graham Bullen as More. The script has intelligence, too. Bolt’s Thomas More is a smart, articulate man, as are his antagonists, particularly Henry VIII (Chris Walters) and Thomas Cromwell (James Gill). The theatre loves the conflict of individual conscience vs. irrational power (think of Antigone or The Crucible), and Bolt poses More’s dilemma in dramatically effective ways. But the script feels a little dated, especially the role of the Common Man narrator (played charmingly here by Douglas Abel). And I had forgotten how relatively one-dimensional all the characters but More ultimately appear.
The play revolves around King Henry’s attempts to find a wife who would give him a male heir. Henry opposes the dictates of the Catholic Church and establishes the Church of England in order to justify divorcing Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn. But he can do nothing to convince Thomas More, his Chancellor and the most respected man in the kingdom, to publicly affirm what the pious More sees as the King’s apostasy. More won’t publicly reject or rebuke Henry’s actions, but he refuses to approve them.
Despite the pleas of his good friend the Duke of Norfolk (Keith Martin Gordey), son-in-law Will Roper (Jonathan MacDonald), wife Alice (Sarah Arnold) and daughter Margaret (Angela Shaw), More maintains a stubborn integrity, insisting that his conscience prevents him from acting in any other way; to do otherwise, he argues, is as impossible for him as it would be to turn his blue eyes brown. His family’s begging—and their subsequent beggary—won’t change his mind, nor will prison. Everyone around him bows to the King’s will, either out of weakness or pragmatism or, in the case of Cromwell and Richard Rich, out of ambition and evil. But More will go to his execution unbent and unrepentant.
For me the play’s effectiveness lies primarily in the question of conscience vs. collateral damage. Sure, More seems heroic in contrast to scumbags like Cromwell and Rich, and in his passive resistance to a ruler who will stop at nothing to get his own way. And Bullen makes More an attractive hero. But the pleas of his wife and daughter, whose lives are ruined by his insistence on satisfying his own conscience, suggest that More’s own position may be just as self-serving as that of the other men. Maybe the issue is as much one of gender as of conscience or power.
Director Davis gets good work from his cast of ten, with Walters (doubling as Rich and Henry) and Gordey the standouts along with Bullen. John R. Taylor has done wonders with the barnlike space, designing an attractive, functional, multilevel set that makes Jericho Arts Centre’s stage seem half-again larger than usual. Catherine E. Carr’s handsome period costumes convey a visual richness that belies United Players’ modest budget. But Davis has the original music John Mills-Cockell has composed for the show play far too frequently (and often too loudly) under and sometimes over the dialogue, providing an unnecessary distraction from the clash of ideas and the human drama.
In the post-Playhouse era we’re likely to get a revival of a play like this only from a company like United Players, most of whose participants go unpaid, and we should be grateful for the care and intelligence with which they’ve given it to us.