MANY PEOPLE LOSE their heads when forced to compromise their values. But Sir Thomas More refused to compromise his values and lost his head, literally. More, the 16th century philosopher, scholar and ardent catholic, not only sparks the deadly anger of a king-but also inspires the hero of Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons, currently playing at Mather House.
More is an easy figure to emulate from history books and from the stage because of his intelligence, his steadfastness to his principles, and his dedication to his family and to his nation. Yet creating this man is no easy task, for an actor has to capture the total essence of a driven man as Paul Scofield did in his Academy Award Winning performance. But Ted Osius' More lacks that one quality of inner conviction which enables More to transcend his mortality.
That is not to say that Osius gives a weak performance: rather it is fine, even strong. He has the facial expressions, the physical prowess, and even all the proper voice modulations. But he just doesn't exude that kinetic force which should make More float on the stage.
With that link missing, the entire production flounders on that hazy border between interesting college drama and exceptional amateur theatre.
Perhaps this is being too harsh. But when a production contains most of the prerequisites for excellence, that little bit that causes it to fall short seems all the more dismaying. So ultimately the piece's lethargy grounds it, leaving only the easily describable fine character acting and the aesthetically pleasing costumes and set.
Set during the stormy reign of King Henry VIII, the play revolves around the events leading up to Sir Thomas More's execution for refusing to sanction Henry's divorce of his first wife to marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. Henry doesn't require More's permission as his chancellor to marry again: he merely wants the approval of his friend to the point he will kill More if he doesn't sign his name to a piece of paper, condoning the marriage.
Although Henry as a character on stage is rather minor, his tyrannical presence guides all the actions to their tragic conclusion. Gerrit Nicolas captures Henry's physical presence with his rotundity and temperamental facial expressions. But Nicolas doesn't stupefy or terrify the audience as his character does in the play because he's missing the regal conceit that makes a man a true king. And Henry's actions make friends turn into enemies and enemies turn into power-crazed villians.
THE GUIDE THROUGH all these everchanging and developing relationships is the Common Man (Peter Knapp). As unofficial narrator, the Common Man introduces us to the characters and plays all the various servants and commoners. He also links the scenes by extending his monologues through the set changes.
Next to More's character, the Common Man presents the greatest challenge to an actor and Knapp meets that challenge. Maintaining his seemingly subservient character throughout the play. Knapp sprinkles his common mannerisms with a casualness that reduces the plot to its ultimate theme: a struggle to follow one's beliefs. Knapp embodies his character with a subtle insolence--almost cynicism--through his keen looks and carefully gauged facial expressions. Although the Common Man fawns at his various masters' feet, his very submission enables him to retain a distance from the other characters.
The Common Man wields the powerful tool of providing the continuity of the play as he leads us in and out of scenes. He takes us into More's home where we meet More's wife Alice (Anne Montgomery) and his daughter Margaret (Anne Higgins). The actresses exemplify dramatic versatility as they seem to relish every word they pronounce and every movement they make.
Whenever Montgomery wisks on to the stage, she enchants the audience with her tremulously rich voice and maternal dignity. We feel her devotion to her husband, we see her exasperation with his stubborness, and we hear her pleading her love to him.
Montgomery, an English doctoral candidate, has many past plays to her credit, and her experience shows with the oneness she creates with her character. And yet freshman Higgins as her stepdaughter is equally convincing. Relatively new to the Harvard stage. Higgins brings an innocence and simplicity to her role. Her willowy voice resounds throughout the stage as she stands by her father and his principles. And her inner strength and intelligence are reflected through her graceful posture and serene expressions.
Higgins and Montgomery act well with Osius. At one point towards the end of the play, when More is in jail condemned to death, the wife and daughter come to say their last farewell. In their final moments together, the three embrace. They almost freeze, creating a virtual tableau. We feel the women's sorrow and pain at their distance from More yet we don't feel he is all there.
AND TWO OTHER characters worthy of mention are Richard Rich and Thomas Cromwell who plan More's downfall. They are power-hungry, jealous of More's idealistic control over the king. Lawrence Aronovitch plays a truly despicable Cromwell as his whole face gleams with disdain and contempt. His hatred is so strong that we are stonewalled in our attempts to find anything redeeming in him.
Cromwell's sidekick Rich grapples his way up the ladder to success. Betraying his friendship to More, he aids malicious attempts to blacken More's reputation with the King. T.H. Culhane gives his character appropriately rat-like and fidgety movements. Rich is not a man: he's a rodent. These roles lend themselves as do most of the others to clear-cut interpretations and motivations. More blocks Cromwell's and Rich's influence with the King. Therefore, More must be removed. And what better way than forcing a conflict between the two strong willed men. Henry and More, in which More is bound to lone, and does.
Everything leads us back to More and what we're to expect from the actor who portrays him. More has to garner the respect and then murderous wrath of a king, he has to deserve the devotion of his loved ones, and he has to spiritually prevail over the evil men.
Osius delivers the lines with fine pacing and emotions. He carries himself as befits a nobleman. We see his mental deliberations during transitions on the stage where he remains frozen. We see his character led away to death. But he just isn't the complete More. He has all the individual makings of More but inner fire doesn't consume him. Sometimes he appears as though part of his pysche is detached and looking down on him.
But because of that flow in More's portrayal--a missing synthesis of all More's characteristics and abilities--the play does not soar as it could. The costumes are gorgeous, the set is appropriately simple, the lighting creates interesting shadows and tableaus. And most of the acting in there too. But the total product misses that one desirable quality which would enliven the entire performance.
This play has been performed many times before and will continue to be performed as it provides the delicious role of a man driven sole; by his principles. But only if an actor can capture all the inner fibers of Sir Thomas More can the play truly be called A Man For All Seasons.