Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 7, 2008
A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt. Directed by Doug Hughes. Set design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by David Lander. Original music & sound design bt David Van Tieghem. Hair & wig design by Tom Watson. Cast: Frank Langella, with Hannah Cabell, Michael Esper, Michel Gill, Zach Grenier, Dakin Matthews, George Morfogen, Patrick Page, Maryann Plunkett, Jeremy Strong, Charles Borland, Peter Bradbury, Patricia Hodges, Triney Sandoval, Emily Dorsch.
Langella has found in Sir Thomas More a role that utilizes his many unique gifts as a mature actor with an unquenchably impish spirit. Though 68, and playing a character in his 50s, Langella seems at the start the most youthful and energetic of men. His wife Alice (Maryann Plunkett) and even his daughter Margaret (Hannah Cabell), her beloved William Roper (Michael Esper), and the family servant Matthew (Peter Bradbury) are burdened with everyday troubles, but Sir Thomas derives from his faith a view of the world as one of unending promise that mystifies everyone who sees it as merely a place to live.
So there's that much farther for him to fall when he refuses to appease King Henry VIII (a diabolically sunshiny Patrick Page) by either declaring as illegitimate his present marriage to Catherine of Aragon, or support the monarch's intended marriage to Anne Boleyn. The King considers Sir Thomas's reputation as a man of supreme conscience so valuable, he's willing to do anything to secure his endorsement - including stripping him of the status and possessions that define him as an ordinary man of extraordinary power.
As Bolt's scenes progress, cataloging the self-interest, duplicity, and elastic ethics of the likes of Cardinal Wolsey (Dakin Matthews), Thomas Cromwell (Zach Grenier), and Richard Rich (Jeremy Strong), the ardor slowly melts from behind Sir Thomas's eyes. Langella's last Broadway role, as President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, climaxed with him aging decades before a television camera; much the same happens here, with lines cutting into his brow, a quaver creeping into his voice, and the strength draining from his muscles as he maintains his position before unthinkable odds.
Yet Langella never openly requests your pity. He makes it clear that his sphere of influence is a fully insular one, devastating to the wife and family he's destined to leave behind, but emanating from a place of a deep conviction. You're left, then, with a full portrait of a full man, beaten but not broken, withered but not rotten by the harsh glare of unforgiving authority.
Langella's firm grasp on the unrelenting pressures Sir Thomas faces are not especially welcomed by all that surrounds this tireless actor. Oh, the supporting performances are as honest and forthright as Sir Thomas, with the Plunkett's percussively patrician franticness, Page's libidinous joie de vivre, and Strong's contented confliction most standing out. But the show depends on its central moral concern, and resolute as Langella is in embodying the contradictions that give Sir Thomas his vivifying glow of stalwart steadfastness amid clouds of persecution, he can only barely overcome the apotheosizing effects of Doug Hughes's production.
This is less of a problem in Bolt's original script, used for the 1961 Broadway premiere, which tempers Sir Thomas's inveterate goodness by viewing it through the lens of those who most acutely felt the impact of his treatment: the audience, left to drift in a world without such noble-minded heroes. Bolt included as his narrator and as our advocate a character called The Common Man, who played crucial underling roles (including Matthew, and the jailer, jury, and executioner who close out Sir Thomas's life) and stated in the closing speech the key lesson we usually absorb from the trials men like Sir Thomas endure: "It isn't difficult to keep alive, friends - just don't make trouble - or if you must make trouble, make the sort of trouble that's expected."
Hughes, however, has excised the character, a decision that brings the play more in keeping with its 1966 film version (which Bolt himself adapted), but without the tauter tethers to reality the spectacle- and tension-heavy movie enjoyed. (Only Catherine Zuber's deliciously elegant costumes come close to matching the film's sumptuous style.) As Brechtian devices such as The Common Man are not exactly common in films, their intimate connection with the viewer much harder to establish than is the case onstage, this is hardly surprising. But it doesn't aid in assimilating the play as performed live.
"In considering producing the play now," Hughes said in a recent interview, "I felt that the original brilliance of the device had been tarnished by relentless imitation over the last half century. We're all too used to direct address in the theatre these days. With all respect, the play's politics, bitter ironies, and human truths seemed to me better conveyed without the use of a self-conscious narrator. I think the audience can be trusted with the significance of it all."
But it's not the politics, ironies, human truths, or significance that this deletion stifles - it's the drama. Without The Common Man's grounding presence, A Man For All Seasons becomes just another weepy a window overlooking a single put-upon person, rather than a microscope through which we can better see ourselves - what we can do, and what we can't. Langella is marvelous, but Hughes's choice to restructure Bolt's play to differentiate it from countless others has transformed this once unique look at a unique man into a play that's unbearably, embarrassingly common.