“It is a long road you have opened,” Sir Thomas More tells the crooked politician Thomas Cromwell in Robert Bolt’s 1960 play “A Man for All Seasons.” “For first men will disclaim their hearts, and presently, they will have no hearts. God help the people whose statesmen walk your road.”
With current statesmen still walking that road in alarming numbers, it is a good time to revisit Bolt’s powerful play — set in London in the 1520s and 1530s — as The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is currently doing in a masterfully polished production, directed by Paul Mullins, at Drew University in Madison.
Attendees may be familiar with the story from the Oscar-winning 1966 film (Bolt also did the screenplay for that, adapting his own play). But there are some major differences in the play. Most notably, perhaps, one of the most important roles in the play’s cast is the Common Man (played here by Kevin Isola), who both serves as the story’s narrator and portrays various working-class characters, changing costumes and accents. The Common Man shows up as More’s crafty servant, a pub owner, a jailer, a woman who accuses More of taking a bribe, an executioner and so on.
Especially with his wryly humorous narration, he adds some lightness and relatability — some comedy to balance the tragedy — in a play that is mostly concerned with lofty philosophical concepts and the dire consequences of bucking those in power.
“It is perverse: To start a play made up of kings and cardinals in speaking costumes, and intellectuals with embroidered mouths, with me,” he announces in his play-opening speech, before sneaking a few sips of More’s fine wine.
Thomas Michael Hammond is excellent as the staunchly moral More, the English chancellor who refuses to cave in to King Henry VIII’s demands. More feels he has no choice in the matter — to ask him to condone sin would be like asking him to stop breathing — and Hammond effectively conveys that, with a sense of calmness at his core that puts him on a different plane from the other characters.
Roger Clark makes a big impression in his brief time onstage as the king, who is mostly unseen in this play, controlling the lives of More and others from afar, but does appear in one scene that is mostly a conversation with More.
Clark nails it, showing us all of the mercurial king’s qualities — his bluster, his insecurity, his charm, his vanity — in a way that makes him seem both larger than life and very human. Rarely have I seen an actor contribute so much to a play in so little time onstage.
Similarly, Raphael Nash Thompson projects a commanding presence in his brief appearance as Cardinal Wolsey, who dies early in the storyline. And Edward Furs is appropriately oily in scenes that show the guile of Spanish ambassador Signor Chapuys.
I thought James McMenamin went a little too far, though, in his portrayal of the play’s main villain, Thomas Cromwell (the king may ultimately be the source of More’s suffering, but it is Cromwell who does the dirty work). McMenamin added some over-the-top snideness and gleeful nastiness to his lines that seemed a bit cartoonish to me; Cromwell is quite hissable without that.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is presenting “A Man for All Seasons” at its F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison, through Nov. 5. Visit shakespearenj.org.
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