By Robert Bolt
Produced by Keegan Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Timothy Lynch as Sir Thomas More and Melissa-Leigh Douglass as Margaret More and Charlotte Akin as Alice More (Photos: Ray Gniewek)
A Man for all Seasons is not a play about a man who seeks to become a martyr for his beliefs. Rather, it is about Sir Thomas More (Tim Lynch), who desperately seeks to avoid martyrdom with all the considerable lawyerly skills at his command. In fact, Sir Thomas will do anything to keep his head but the one thing he must do – which is to betray himself, and to deny that which he believes with all his heart is true. Which is to say, to lie about something at the core of his being.
He does not do it. Instead, he gives up his position, his property, his family, and his life.
What a thing to show, in this town, at this time!
The other day, in the corridors of a Federal office building, I heard one bureaucrat instruct another: "make him happy." She could have been referring to a Congressman, or a higher-ranking bureaucrat, or even a lobbyist. These folks all like to be happy, and there is an army of people in Washington who exist to make it so. The instruction, of course, is the same one that the pimp gives his prostitute.
So, too, it is in the play’s Court of Henry VIII (Jon Townson), with more consequence. It will make the King happy to hear that his marriage to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, was illegal so that he is free to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. Later, it will make the King happy to hear that the true head of the Church is not the Bishop of Rome but the King of England. Sir Thomas will say neither of these things, and so will not make his king happy.
But he cuts a deal with the King: if he will not speak for these things, he will not speak against them, either. He will maintain a politic silence. The King soon comes to realize that he is served poorly by this contract. Egotistical and needy, he requires the approval of the one man whose approval would be, if given, authentic. He does not get it, and so slowly he tightens the vise around Sir Thomas and all that is dear to him.
Thomas’ friends, personified by the Duke of Norfolk (Kevin Adams), beg him to reconsider and sign an oath affirming the King’s leadership of the Church, regardless of his private beliefs. Thomas’ enemies, led by the rapacious Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rhea) seek to trap him into denying the King’s authority – an act of treason which will result in his death. Neither succeeds.
Bolt contrasts Thomas’ steadfastness with the ride his onetime friend, Richard Rich (Carlos Bustamante) takes down the slippery slope to hell. The ambitious Rich is an accommodator, who is willing to walk on the dark side for advancement. He begins by doing a little ineffectual spywork and ends up manufacturing the perjured evidence that costs Sir Thomas his life. (The trial scene is largely taken from actual transcripts, and much of the dialogue – including Sir Thomas’ devastating ripost to Rich at the end of the scene – is historical fact.)
To compress history into a historical drama, Bolt introduces a character he calls "the Common Man" (Robert Leembruggen). He is Sir Thomas’ manservant, and the boatman who takes Sir Thomas to his appointments, and the innkeeper for the place where Cromwell and Rich meet, and the foreman of the jury which condemns Sir Thomas, and the executioner who cuts off his head. With wit and common sense, he moves the narrative along, fills in the gaps between the years, and tells us things we need to know but could not stand to learn from clunky expository dialogue. It is a clever device, and in Leembruggen’s skilled hands, an extremely pleasurable one to watch.
Leembruggen’s wonderful performance is matched by that of most of the principals. Lynch sells himself completely as the precise, complex Sir Thomas, who seems soft as warm leather on the outside but is full of steel within. Charlotte Akin as his wife Alice is absolutely superb. Tough as a badger, she is a far more difficult adversary for Sir Thomas than the King or Cromwell, for she knows his pretensions and understands his weaknesses. When, towards the end of the second Act, all is lost she lets her true feelings show, and it unleashes a tsunami of emotion which reaches out to the very last row.
There are a bunch of fine supporting performances. Bustamante in particular is effective as a man who loses his moral compass one little bit at a time. Melissa-Leigh Douglass and Mike Kozemchak do nice turns as Sir Thomas’ daughter and her passionate, undisciplined husband. Company dramaturg Trudi Olivetti does fine work in a brief stint as a disappointed litigant. Townson hit all the right notes in his brief appearance as Henry.
Some performances did not work for me. I did not at all buy Jim Howard as Cardinal Wolsey, although he was good later on as Thomas Cranmer. And I’m sorry to say that Mark Rhea, a fine actor, was not convincing as Cromwell. He conveyed none of Cromwell’s sleek dangerousness, although to be fair he seemed to be laboring under the effects of a cold on the day I saw the performance.
This is a meaty, lengthy play, with a great deal of complicated dialogue. Nonetheless, director Susan Marie Rhea made things move at a remarkably clipped pace, and the two-and-three-quarters hour production seemed to go by in half that time.
After you see this production you may be surprised at the profuseness with which Cromwell has reproduced himself in this town. He is as ubiquitous as bacteria now, plotting to replace skilled professionals with party loyalists, seeking to distract us with meaningless hot-button issues, endeavoring to make his king happy, whoever his king might be. But if you should happen to find a Sir Thomas – probably scribbling in some dark corner, hoping not to be noticed – it will be worth your while to pull up a chair and listen to him. It may not make you happy, but it will make you right.
(Running time: 2:45 with 1 intermission) A Man for All Seasons continues Thursdays through Sundays until May 12. Thursdays through Saturdays are at 8; Sunday is a 2 p.m. matinee. Tickets are $25 ($20 for seniors and students) and may be had by calling 703.892.0202 or emailing [email protected].