Saints and Sinners
A Man for All Seasons at the Loeb Ex tonight at 8 p.m.
SPEAKING OF SIR THOMAS More, Samuel Johnson once wrote, "He was the person of the greatest virtue these islands ever produced." Saintliness can carry a man only so far, but in the case of Sir Thomas it seems to have carried him far enough: to the post of Lord Chancellor of England under Henry VIII. More's virtue found an uncongenial home in the Renaissance court, where moral rectitude was hardly a lasting recipe for success. Henry admired him, but these were difficult times; the King's friendships had to take second place to the King's lusts--or more precisely, his obsession with perpetuating the Tudor line through a male heir.
More was no martyr by temperament. In Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, he is a man splendidly fit for life, witty and compassionate, loving both God and His world. Unable to bring himself to consent to the Act of Succession, which legitimates Henry's divorce from Catharine of Aragon, he seeks safety in silence, counting on the law to protect him. In the hands of men like Thomas Cromwell, however, the law is an instrument that can be bent, Nixon-like, to suit any ends, and More is condemned finally on the basis of suborned evidence. The quality that ensures his doom is for Bolt the very one which confirms his triumph: his unwillingness to let go of selfhood, to subordinate conscience to serpentine expeidiency.
Any production of A Man for All Seasons depends heavily on its lead, and George Miller, who has played More twice before, certainly seems to know what he's doing this time around. In John Manulis's production at the Loeb Ex, Miller's More is surrounded by an aura of saintliness from the very beginning. While he delivers More's witticisms with neat comic timing, the Lord Chancellor's unearthly rectitude remains clearly predominant over his passion for life. We know from the first that here is a man not long for this world.
The first act begins unimpressively enough. After a monologue by Bolt's Brechtian narrator-figure, The Common Man, follows a scene marked by particularly sloppy blocking, which has Miller putting his arms around everyone in sight. But the action soon starts to pick up when More confronts Cardinal Wolsey (craftily portrayed by Chris Clemenson), who warns him of the potential conflict between private conscience and the demands of state.
The second act, in which that conflict is realized, attains to a high dramatic intensity, thanks both to Miller's finesse and a superlative performance by Dan Riviera as Thomas Cromwell. In a world populated almost exclusively by shifty, power-crazed and unreliable characters, Riviera's Cromwell outshifts them all. Here is a courtier who could have given Machiavelli lessons. His fingers heavy with rings, his mouth twitching contempt, Riviera is every inch the master of ruthless pragmatism, as uncomfortable with More's unswerving integrity as More is with the vicissitudes of court politics.
There are plenty of juicy parts in Bolt's play, and Manulis's cast manages to carry most of them off with a fair degree of competence. Michael Kriesman as the Duke of Norfolk, More's friend, aptly embodies the gusty energy of Tudor aristocracy, while Jon Goerner seems made for the role of the slimy Spanish ambassador Signor Chapuys. Gene Sykes also turns in a clever performance as The Common Man, whose life, with its daily compromises and bartering of self, Bolt considers the analogue to our own.
With a cast this large, there are bound to be disappointments. The biggest one is the casting of Peter Knapp as Richard Rich, Cromwell's servile protege. Knapp is too weak, even for the part. Alan Stock as More's son-in-law is also a bit stiff, and Stephen Hayes as King Harry is ridiculously miscast--he looks 16.
Since all the action takes place on a single set, lighting is very important, and, despite occasional technical snafus, for the most part it works well. One minor quibble: More's wife and daughter, if not More himself, should have been allowed a change of costume after their fall into penury.
The most innovative dramatic device Bolt uses in A Man for All Seasons is his narrator, who, in his various guises, keeps calling attention to our kinship with him. We might want to identify with Sir Thomas, Bolt intimates, but in truth we are no better than the jury that condemns him. In this production, we in fact become that jury--it is to us Cromwell turns as he urges conviction. In our role as jurors, we judge More guilty; but in our role as audience, we understand his motives for dying, and judge their dramatization a success.