Angels And Devils

With The Passion of the Christ raking in millions, religion is clearly in again, and there are few Catholic Saints with the cross over appeal of the 16th century humanist, lawyer, writer, diplomat and statesman Sir Thomas More. The play based on the man, now canonised as a saint, has been a critical success both on stage and film, winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1967. The Actors Studio Theatre’s staging of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Season as part of its 15th Anniversary celebration certainly had all the elements of a runaway success.

A Man For All Seasons gives us Thomas More, a man sentenced to death for refusing to approve King Henry VIII’s divorce to his second wife. If More was just any man, his refusal would mean nothing – but he was the Lord Chancellor, a religious intellect in the courts, known for his holiness, honesty and integrity. For these reasons, he couldn’t bring himself to approve of the King’s action, and for these reasons, his approval must be elicited by any mean possible.

For his return to A Man for All Seasons, Joe Hasham has assembled one of the strongest team of actors seen so far this year. Ari Ratos, playing Sir Thomas More, is a gifted actor, but has remained under the hype radar for the most part. He has a certain self-deprecating affability on stage, which he has used to good comic effect in past productions. But Ari failed to impress in the opening scene, as he seemed to revert to the safety of a familiar buffoonery in his first few minutes on the stage.

It did not help that Ari’s next scene was with Ben Tan, entrusted with the role of Wolsey, the preceding Lord Chancellor. In every play I have seen him in, Ben Tan remains Ben Tan, his bag of acting tricks limited to a widening of his eyes to express disdain, anger, surprise, humour, sympathy, love. The scene is brief, but it prepares us for the fluidity of fate, and the inevitability of More’s destiny: Wolsey wanted More to support the King, but even so, Wolsey himself was sentenced to death by the King for a triviality, and was replaced by More. Having to watch Ben ‘do’ the role was not a pretty sight.

Ari became more self-assured as the play progressed, most obviously in his scene with Jit Murad’s Henry VIII. It was an inspired choice to cast such an intelligent actor in the role of the King. Jit used his larger than life stage presence to good effect, channelling it into creating a Henry whose manic energy changes as quickly as the turn of the tide from childish petulance to menacing megalomania. The Jit-Ari equation captured the dynamics of the relationship between More and the King, and more importantly, set the henceforth-absent King as an omnipresent force in our minds as the play progresses.

Susan Lankaster played More’s wife, Alice with feisty conviction in one of most emotionally attuned performances of the evening. It was disappointing however to see the role of More’s daughter, Margaret, so reduced in this production. The character is drawn as More’s intellectual equal, and the personal cost of his choice is captured in the scenes between them. Sharifah Alyea as Margaret became nothing more than a pretty face. This robbed Margaret’s capitulation in the closing scenes of the play of its significance within the context of Bolt’s play.

Zahim Albakri’s portrayal of Cromwell, Secretary of King Henry VIII, and executer of the King’s wishes, as a performance, was delightful to watch. The quick movements, the lean physicality of his body, the slight modulation of voice from charm to harm, gave Cromwell the panache of a corporate raider, without a hint of self­-doubt to complicate his mission of bringing down the top man. He was, in short, effectively evil.

It made for a poorer play however.

While Bolt’s central character may well be the epitome of saintlyhood, A Man For All Seasons betrays its 20th century sensibility in its attempt to question the common view of More as a martyr. The play presents a complex More, casting multiple interpretations of his refusal to sign the Act of Supremacy. Was it a betrayal of his family and country? Moral vanity? Legal pedantry? An irrational idealism? Or just plain naivete to the turn of the political tide? The play is not a religious primer, and not about good vs. evil. The characters are not drawn as one­-dimensional devils or angels. Consequently, More’s act of spiritual steadfastness is all the more meaningful because it stems not from some divinely endowed morality, but from his very humanness – a rational principle, guided as much by reason as spirituality.

However, the production took precisely the good vs. evil direction. History tells us that Cromwell was to be the active agent of More’s demise. The production never looked beyond this well-known fact nor sought to give us any insights into the man. As a result, the dramatic tension arising out of the battle between More and his persecutor stayed at the same frequency throughout. Zahim’s chillingly cold and precise Cromwell became the perfect foil to Ari’s benevolent More, making him more plot device than flesh-out character.

In the same vein too was the portrayal of Richard Rich. Fahmi Fadzil, whose last appearance on stage (Atomic Jaya) was so convincing as to put dirty thoughts into many a man’s mind, did not measure up here. One felt that he never fully grasped the motivation of the character – Richard’s self-awareness that his desperate desire for success could lead him down a path of moral decline. Fahmi’s performance did not appear to be grounded in the character’s dilemma and consequently, his portrayal of Richard was a lot of cliched gesturing and very little real emotion.

The Brechtian intrusions of the Common Man, played by Kubhaer Jethwani effectively disrupted the world of the play, forcing the audience out of passive consumption into active participation. Kubhaer Jethwani’s greatest asset as a performer is his confidence, and Hasham used this to good effect, giving us a Common Man who is sure footed in his delivery of salt of the earth wisdom. However, the suave assurance of this Common Man robbed the character of the baser qualities of the common man. When he says, “I’d let him out if I could, but I can’t. Not without taking residence in there myself’, we are, expectedly, repelled by the smug self-preservation, but, yet, deeply struck by the veracity of the reasoning.

Joe Hasham’s A Man for All Seasons evoked admiration, respect, awe for Saint Thomas More. With enough strong performers and well crafted moments, it was undeniably an enjoyable evening of theatre. However, the portrayal of More as goodness personified and the demonising or ineffectual rendering of the supporting characters combined to place More’s stand beyond the reach of the common man.

First Published: 23.04.2004 on Kakiseni

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