As part of the volatile 'Gunpowder' Season at the RSC's Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Thomas More is a fascinating example of politicized drama at its inflammatory best. An episodic adventure following the career of a Catholic martyr during the reign of Henry VIII, this wonderful play from the early 1590s is full of danger and threat, especially to the tenuous social order of late Elizabethan society. Here is a Chancellor whose honesty and rhetorical skill have advanced him to the highest position in the land, answerable to a king who is God's vicegerent here on earth. As with all positions of power, an awful responsibility accompanies the office, a responsibility which, taken to the extreme, requires moral fortitude which can and does threaten one's very life. Thomas More explores this dimension in a scurrilously funny though ultimately deeply moving way.
It must not be forgotten how volatile, how gunpowder-like, this play really would have appeared at the time. Protestantism was the national religion and Foxe's book of Protestant martyrs a best-seller. Just to portray a Roman Catholic martyr in such a sympathetic light must have been tantamount to treason, especially performed under a regime whose ultimate authority, Queen Elizabeth, was daughter of the king referred to so often in the play. No wonder, then, that the only surviving hand-written example of Thomas More is covered in the comments of the contemporary censor; no wonder that at a particularly rebellious moment of the plot Shakespeare is apparently called in to provide a speech which highlights the voice of government reason and maintains the fragile status quo. Even so, there is no proof the play ever reached the Elizabethan or Jacobean stage at all. This manuscript might be the only evidence of a troubled play written and rewritten during an anxious time, whose subject matter was too perilous for the authorities to sanction.
With this historical background in mind, it is a joy to see this production at the Swan, sympathetically and intelligently directed by Robert Delamere. Delamere has successfully moulded a twenty two strong cast into an ensemble of actors who are totally focussed on the developing narrative. The size of this cast might have produced and unwieldy beast stumbling through the episodes of More's life with doom-laden inevitability. Far from it. This production evokes the social anxieties of its age by illustrating the social unrest and social humour of an earlier London generation.
The play opens with an all too familiar pattern of social unrest: the arrival of the foreigner, the outsider, the immigrant. In the London of the 1590s insurrection was always in the air; young disaffected trainee workers, the apprentices, whose livelihoods depended on learning generational skills and on market demand, felt threatened by the immigrants from Europe whose new skills were squeezing them out of work. It was a dangerous time to walk the streets of London ; a foreign accent or unusual attire were enough to prompt attack by an angry London mob. The government recognized the danger of insurrection and sought to quash these riots with harsh punishment. Thomas More depicts similar episodes which occurred during the reign of Henry VIII. With xenophobic glee, foreigners are depicted raping London artisan's wives and stealing their goods. Eventually the London mob rebel and attack the outsiders, only to be calmed by Thomas More, who brings them to their senses and is rewarded with entrance to Henry's court and a position as Privy Counsellor.
More's rise and eventual fall (which, unlike A Man For All Seasons, is glossed over in obvious deference to Elizabethan sensibilities surrounding the monarch's legitimacy) provide the opportunity to experience a late Elizabethan evocation of Henrician Tudor life. The relationships between More and his wife, daughters and son-in-law are perfectly observed and brilliantly executed. When the family finally arrive to pay their last loving respects to the condemned More, moments of deep emotional pain and fortitude are expressed with subtle minimalist realism.
Of course, the dramatic success of this play is very much dependent on the brilliance of the acting ensemble. Nigel Cooke as Sir Thomas More heroically underplays his delivery. Cooke's vocal register is soothing and musical in its range, and perfectly suited to the set pieces of Elizabethan rhetoric. As the loving husband and father, Cooke presents More as a vulnerable though morally impenetrable human being. Teresa Banham as his wife, Lady More, perfectly complements Cooke's performance. Banham's final leave-taking displays such dignified force and resignation that her silence fills the space. A spell-binding moment of theatre, with an audience stilled with its emotional power. It is this power which held us all in stunned silence at the end of the play. The final well-deserved applause came spontaneously after the lights had risen; a mark of engrossing, moving theatre at its best.
Simon Higlett's design creates a grubby world of political and moral decay in which More is troubled by the problems of the poor and the oppressed whilst treading the dangerous path of court favouritism. The wooden Swan stage is smothered in black detritus, like the ash-laden residue from an arson attack. The rear of the stage is tiered and set with ranks of theatre seating. The whole, like a disused civic hall decaying in dark and musty neglect. From these seats, members of the company can observe the developing action, or even become a part of the audience themselves. Smoke and fire and decay and noise are nev er far away. Subliminal rumblings of discontent add to the atmosphere of rebellious threat. Mike Compton's sound design is a vital component to this sense of unease.
There is much humour in Thomas More; more importantly, however, there is also much humanity. This is an obscure play which, for Shakespeare aficionados is a must see. For theatre-lovers in general it is even more so, because this is political theatre at its best, and a politics which, although four hundred years old, resonates as strongly today as the rumbling sound effects on the Swan stage. An heroic production from beginning to end and worthy of the RSC's impeccable effort.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005