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Church and state entwined: (l-r) Eric Hill and David Chandler in A Man For All Seasons.

Not The Stuff of Martyrs

By Kathryn Lange

A Man For All Seasons

By 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 same perception.

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 and cathedral.

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 with conviction.

 


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