and state entwined: (l-r) Eric Hill and David Chandler
in A Man For All Seasons.
The Stuff of Martyrs
Man For All Seasons
Robert Bolt, directed by Richard Corley
Berkshire Theatre Festival, through Aug. 9
There is a single word that sounds like a gong throughout
Robert Bolt’s Tony Award-winning classic, A Man For All
Seasons: conscience. Richard Corley’s director’s notes
echo the same hallmark. The 16th-century machinations surrounding
the trial of Saint Thomas More are politically and spiritually
complex, but the core of the story is simple: There was a
man willing to die before betraying his conscience. It is
a message that resonates poignantly today, in a time when,
according to Corley’s notes, “there are fewer and fewer things
. . . we cannot bring ourselves to do.” Corley perceives the
plays center with clarity. However, he fails to shape the
characters, their connections and their struggles with the
He does handle the technical team adeptly. Murell Horton’s
costumes successfully define both the period and the shifting
status of characters, without being burdened by detail. As
More and his family rise through the ranks, and their rough
wool shifts to silk and velvet, but Horton maintains their
modesty with an unadorned, earthy palate of mauve, sage and
camel—in stark contrast to the heavily ornamented black and
gold of the play’s greedy manipulators. The Common Man (Walter
Hudson), who Bolt has written to portray a bevy of commoners,
from More’s steward to his jailer, shifts easily between positions—a
hat here, an apron there—but remains universal.
Joseph Varga has created a magnificently simple set. Two massive
Doric columns flank the stage at front. Three more columns
and an arched gothic window are moved between scenes by an
anonymous ensemble of robed monks, redefining the playing
space quickly and completely. Varga’s few shifting elements
clearly shape the play’s many settings, from courtyards to
manors, pubs to prisons. The heavy columns loom throughout,
a permanent symbol of the inescapable pillars of the law—the
same law, which is More’s true north, and which ultimately
costs him his head.
Lighting designer Matthew E. Adelson plays adeptly with Varga’s
set, shaping space and mood in equal measure. A rough scrim
upstage, when unlit, gives the feel of a heavy stone wall.
The same scrim, shot with sharp gobos, transports the production
from garden to jail cell. And when illuminated red from behind,
the entire stage becomes menacing. Adelson also makes sensitive
use of the Gothic window, casting beams through it’s leaded
panes, sometimes warm, sometimes foreboding, defining home
It is an interesting and expertly designed space, but aside
from a few well staged scenes, Corley does not use it to its
full potential. At three hours long, A Man For All Seasons
is dramatic but academic, and needs a strong hand to shape
the physical dynamics and the subtle dramatic arcs. Corley’s
staging is often stagnant, and he fails to plumb some of the
script’s most compelling forces.
The performances are inconsistent, with much of the best work
achieved by supporting characters. Walter Hudson presents
his Common Man with a dexterous balance of humor, cleverness,
compassion and naiveté. In the hands of David Chandler, the
villainous Thomas Cromwell is as pitifully weak as he is complexly
manipulative. Diane Prusha presents an intricate, fierce and
tender portrayal of More’s wife, Alice. And in his single
scene, Gareth Saxe offers the evening’s most stunning performance
with his intensely packed portrayal of King Henry VIII. In
a simple conversation hinging mainly Henry’s love of music
and his recent sailing adventure, Saxe’s every word is driven
with purpose, revealing a king who is adept at manipulation,
hungry for satisfaction, and exhausted by his post.
If all the performances were as strong as the pivotal supporting
roles, this production would sing. But some of the performances
fall flat, and Corley allows two of his key actors to settle
into ineffective and pompous melodrama. As More’s daughter
Margaret, Tara Franklin finds more occasion for distraught
faces than for honest emotion. The bond between More and Margaret
is exquisitely scripted—perhaps the play’s best relationship—but
in this production, there is little sense of connection between
them, and that absence greatly diminishes More’s sacrifice.
Most critically, Eric Hill’s More does not explore the profound
complexity and passionate struggles of the title character.
The choice to depict More as strong and unwavering is clear.
But Hill and Corley failed to recognize that strength does
not preclude fear, tenderness, or vulnerability. At no point
does the clever and confident More seem broken, seem terrified.
And strength is exponentially stronger when a vulnerable man
stands against his fears. Corley allows Hill to deliver nearly
everything with weight and importance. But when everything
is made important, nothing is important. The essential only
shines with intensity when that intensity is rare. Hill’s
More seemed as polished and guarded as the politicians he
stood against, and garnered little more sympathy than his
calculating counterparts. When he cries that his fight is
“no mere gesture,” sadly, a gesture is exactly what his sacrifice
seems to be.
The play’s title is taken from a 1519 writing by Robert Whittington.
“More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I
know not this fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness,
lowliness and affability? And, as time requireth, a man of
marvelous mirth and pastimes, and sometime of as sad gravity.
A man for all seasons.” It is a shame that this production
did not shape More with such complexity. Still, nearly 500
years after More’s death, and half a century after Bolt penned
his play, the story remains vital. Berkshire Theatre Festival’s
treatment is imperfect, but they offer the important message