A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt. Directed by Richard Corley.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...swimming in the opposite direction."
Episodic, Brechtian-style theater can be very engaging. When I first saw "A Man For All Seasons" back in 1965 I was an Eric Bentley Brechtian, intent on seeing the engagement of alienation techniques. This play, with its fascinating character known as The Common Man, gave me everything I expected in such a performance genre. Bolt, the playwright, forged a split-level drama with the slightly forced story of Sir Thomas More who wonít give an inch in his principles to satisfy the needs of his king at the upper level and the progress of a common man from servant to executioner with stops along the way to become cleric and pre-judging jury of his betters. Bolt, like Brecht, wanted his audience to understand how the classes can communicate through action. Bolt provided his audience, principally the wealthier patrons in the front rows, with a series of ugly images of mankind, both physical and moral leaving us, in the cheap seats at the back of the balcony, smugly aware of how disquieting it was for front-row "ambassadors" to be caught directly in the vision of such unfeeling humanity.
When I went to see the movie, which starred the brilliant stage More - Paul Scofield - I was sorely disappointed that the playwright, as screenwriter, had removed the element of alienation completely, discarding the Common Man for a series of handsome, young actors playing the "roles" assumed by that character in the play. Gone was the contrast between the common and uncommon man. Gone was the tension of watching the lower elements get the best of the betters. Gone was the angst of the final moments of the play.
I never thought anyone could do that to me again, but in this new production at The Berkshire Theatre Festival they pulled a fast one and screwed me out of that chill the final speech of the play sent through me by taking away the punch line from the man with the one-two punch at his beck and call. I do not know whose decision it was to make this totally egregious choice. After three hours and ten minutes of dynamic theater it is a lousy act, a criminal act in fact, to change the impact of a line written in simplicity yet warning the front row patrons that the masses are out there behind them, in the balcony seats, in the parking lots, in the world.
In the script we have this description: "THE COMMON MAN: Late middle age. He wears from head to foot black tights which delineate his pot-bellied figure. His face is crafty, loosely benevolent, its best expression that of base humor." On stage we have Walter Hudson, tall, lithe, slender, half-naked in beige leather pants. Oddly, considering the change to the final lines, he still says in his opening appearance: "Is this a costume? Does this say anything? It barely covers one man's nakedness! A bit of black material to reduce Old Adam to the Common Man." Here the blatantly different aural and visual image makes no sense and is startlingly hard to understand. Surely if the final lines can be irresponsibly altered, the word black can become beige without hampering the play or the authorís intent. In its current form it merely confuses.
Hudson does a wonderful job with the character. He knows when to directly confront the audience and how to make that pay. He knows how to play the misunderstandings of his servant-self and the deeper comprehension of the conniving going on that motivates him later. Where we really go astray with his performance is at the final moments of the drama, the beheading of the leading character. He has not been given the motion, nor the sound effect to be truly on target and then thereís that mistake of line appropriation...oh well, Mr. Hudson, you could have been the man Bolt is describing as a "man for all seasons," for surely that applies more to this character than to Sir Thomas who is a man for one season only.
More is played by Eric Hill in a larger than life, slightly pompous, deeply moving portrayal of a man who can only act on legal grounds to protect his moral rights. When he gives himself over to the words of the play and allows himself to play the scenes with wife, with friends, with king, he is absolutely brilliant, but all too often he pulls back from this to play the moral of the show and there he loses us a bit. Hill has the ability to be brilliant in this part and instead he chooses only to be very good. He has the good fortune to play some of his best scenes opposite Diane Prusha as his wife Alice. Prusha takes her into every deep emotion the character possesses and comes out at the end as the best of wives, the finest of human spirits even though the acts that precede this final change would have us dislike her for her lack of humanity, her disdain for her husbandís decisions. Prusha has the gift and uses it well in this role to create a more sympathetic woman than Bolt may have wished.
Tara Franklin shines with her simplicity in playing Moreís daughter Margaret. Past editions of the show have made their relationship suspect, but here she is just a daughter, loving and sweet and understanding of her fatherís worst decisions. Her lover, then husband, is played nicely by Greg Keller.
The Duke of Norfolk, Moreís best friend and last ally, is played by James Lloyd Reynolds who manages to hold the Duke in check so that he never seems quite the ninny he is made out to be, particularly by Thomas Cromwell, neatly recreated by David Chandler. Chandler is almost too slimy at times, but his character never falters. He brings a true sense of power to the part, as does Andrew Belcher as Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Gareth Saxe has impact in his one scene as Henry VIII. Peter Kybart is a sinister Cardinal Wolsey. Allison Vanouse has two very good small scenes as "the Woman."
A goodly portion of the play belongs to Tommy Schrider in the role of Richard Rich, who begins as an impoverished gentleman who befriends More, uses him to climb the social ladder through employment and who ends up as the lying, cheating, avaricious Lord Chamberlain who ultimately brings about the demise of More. Schriderís consistency in the part is fascinating as we see him alter visibly, yet never find him different no matter which rung of ladder he clings to on his constant climb upward.
Richard Corley moves his characters beautifully through a wonderfully flexible set designed by Joseph Varga through the moody and elemental lighting designed by Matthew E. Adelson. Murell Hortonís costumes are principally just right for the sixteenth century period. Scott Killianís music is often too loud.
More, toward the end of his days, says, "I do none harm, I say none harm, I think none harm." It would seem to be the message of the play, but not so. That message has been left to the man who begins the tale and, in the script at any rate, ends it. The Common Man is supposed to say "...if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that's expected. Well, I don't need to tell you that. Good night. If we should bump into one another, recognize me." Considering the path he has taken and the changes it has brought him to, that final sentence is a warning, not a plea for recognition, a warning that no matter how important you may be, or think you may be, the Common Man is always there, always available to take on the unpleasant jobs, always at your back, a man for any and all seasons, for any and all reasons.
That message is lost in Stockbridge. Without it you do not have this play, no matter how good a job everyone has done. And for the most part they have all done a brilliant job. They just missed the point. And who has chosen to change this most important line? I cannot even begin to tell you, for I do not know. And I donít want to guess.
Walter Hudson as The Common Man (l) and Tommy Schrider as Rich; photo: Kevin Sprague
Gareth Saxe as King Henry VII and Eric Hill as Thomas More; photo: Kevin Sprague
James Lloyd Reynolds as Norfolk and Diane Prusha as Alice More; photo: Kevin Sprague
A Man For All Seasons plays at the Berkshire Theatre Festival on Route 7 in Stockbridge through August 9. For tickets, which range from $23 to $68, call the box office at 413-298-5576.