Last night I saw A Man for All Seasons, a 1960s drama by Robert Bolt about Sir Thomas Moore and his opposition to the divorce of King Henry VIII of England from his first wife, Catherine of Spain, to marry Ann Boleyn. I enjoyed the 60s movie version, and brought high expectations to this production directed by Doug Hughes and starring Frank Langella. The performence met them.
Bolt’s play is a clean vehicle for the drama of a man trying to live when his government finds his personal beliefs–inconvenient. A simple play in its characterization of Sir Thomas Moore as a saint, following his conscience to his death for refusing to publicaly support the King’s divorce, and everyone else as evil (Cromwell, immoral powerseeker, Rich, trecharous worm) or merely less willing to risk death(Moore’s simple wife). Moore’s beliefs do not allow him to serve his King any longer, at which point he simply stops, not because-as he points out in the play-he is making a gesture, but because his conscience would not allow him to do otherwise.
Moore’s remarks were often the delight of the play, lightening the tense mood even as his situation became more and more dire. Only once–at his trial after Rich betrays him–does Moore’s comments, always clear-headed and apt, seem out of place–when he grasps the chain of state office around Rich’s neck and, seeing a dragon, says “Not to give one’s soul for the whole world, but for Whales?” Moore’s fate was sealed in that moment, and his prescient comment too light.
The play had many powerful moments in addition to this, for example when his wife visits him in prison. She is angry that he won’t remove himself from his situation. He begs for her support so that he can go on, and she cries out, “No, I am afraid that when you are dead I will hate you.” When the jailer pulls her away from a prone Moore, sobbing on the prison floor, one feels the great emotional strength it takes his cahracter, to, ultimately, face death with such resolve. This is not an ascetic, but a man, who loved his family and country as well as his god.
The character requires strength of voice and manner, and some subltely in the timing of its witticisms. Langella inhabits the man and role from the pate to the toes, and his controlled and smooth voice is a pleasure to hear. The play depends on Langella for coherence and veracity, and he delivers a solid and natural performance. I barely took my eyes off him, and was as engrossed in the play as I would have been in a vivid dream, because of his performance. He made it look easy to be Sir Thomas.
Before the play, I had the lucky opportunity to be in the audience of a radio interview of Doug Hughes. Hughes was thrilled to have worked with Langella, saying that to work with an experienced actor at the hieght of his powers in such a part as Sir Thomas Moore’s was a great opportunity. After an informative half hour q and a, we were given wine and appetizers and mingled to piano music in the Penthouse Lobby of the American Airline theater–basically the perfect introduction to a powerful, and powerfully-acted, evening of theater.