The Theatre Royal Haymarket and producer Bill Kenwright (who seems to have taken out a permanent lease on this address now) segue from a new play about contemporary American military politics to an old one about English matters of church and state.
But both A Few Good Men and A Man for All Seasons are also plays about conscience and the price to be paid for maintaining one’s personal code of honour that likewise revolve around and resolve themselves in courtroom debate. And both are linked, too, by the epic productions, featuring large companies, that have been generously lavished upon them.
Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons – which was originally written for the radio over half a century ago, was subsequently premiered on stage in 1960 but became best known for the 1966 film version – is classic Haymarket fare in every sense, including the creaking sound of the historical plot being self-importantly stoked up. It’s interesting to notice how, though Shakespeare’s histories from over 400 years ago have a timeless wisdom, much more recent work like this comes across as dated, plodding in its pageant-like progress (the handsome baronial hall setting is by Paul Farnsworth) through a stodgy dramatisation of a true-life event.
Bolt's plot revolves around the battle of wills between a King and his Lord Chancellor, as Henry VIII seeks to manipulate the law and the church into approving his change of partners in the pursuit of an heir, and legitimise the tactic by gaining the approval, steadfastly refused, of Sir Thomas More for the Act of Succession.
Silence doesn’t prove golden in this case. In fact it speaks volumes, and in the process, sends More to the scaffold. The play follows the slow but inexorable progress to that point. And, as staged with reliable conviction by Michael Rudman, it is compellingly rendered with Martin Shaw leading the company as the haunted, increasingly haggard More whose conscience forces his own sacrifice. Shaw has the unenviable job of following in the footsteps of Paul Scofield who made the part his own on stage and screen. But while Shaw's voice may be more limited (and whose isn’t?), he exhibits considerable grace and dignity.
Around the star, there's strong support from a company that includes his real-life daughter Sophie Shaw as his stage daughter, Alison Fiske as his wife, Daniel Flynn as King Henry VIII and Clive Carter as his main inquisitor, Thomas Cromwell. The other outstanding contribution is made by Tony Bell’s Common Man, More’s household steward and the play’s sometime narrator and guide.
- Mark Shenton