A Man for All Seasons

Tue 29th November – Fri 2nd December 2011

reviews

Michael Kalisch

at 10:45 on 30th Nov 2011

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Griff Rees' thoughtful production of 'A Man For All Seasons' is utterly shaped by its setting, the nave of the glorious St Mary's Church, and in part rather stands and falls by the possibilities and limitations of that space. Whilst atmospheric and laden with appropriate historical significance (as the programme reminds us, 'Ridely and Latimer were tried in the chancel of St Mary's'), the setting also made for terrible sight-lines, not helped by clumsy blocking downstage. Variable acoustics, not helped by slurring deliveries, most notably from some of the minor roles, meant that much of the first half was lost.

This is a great pity, because this was otherwise a polished and intelligent production, with some satisfyingly accomplished performances. Iley-Williamson's portrayal of More is a case in point. Looking for all the world like a young Tony Perkins, he puts in a nuanced, intelligent performance, marked by a confidence and a clarity of delivery, and a finely attuned understanding of More's ethical and religious position. He was also, even on first night, secure in his lines and slick in delivery, covering admirably at times for those who were less so (most importantly for the otherwise solid Hill as Norfolk in the finale). Shields - who is blessed with a warm, rich voice - as the scheming Cromwell also deserves great credit for his balanced and engaging performance: his scenes with Iley-Williamson were unsurprisingly the best of the play.

Others did less well. Sikder's shift as the narrating Common Man was frustrating for a number of reasons. The poor quality of his delivery can perhaps be worked on, and put down partly to the acoustics- much of what he said was lost. Other facets of his performance are less forgiveable. There was a pervasive thoughtlessness in the way he moved about the stage- blocking sight-lines; knocking something of a side table; fiddling with his waistcoat buttons; failing to put an apron on; dawdling on scenery changes; incessantly jangling his key in his role as gaoler; not bothering to pin his hair back. He was similarly shoddy in Noughts and Crosses last week (same slurred, muffled delivery, same hair flicks), so he's annoyed me twice in a fortnight. A most alienating Everyman.

In terms of direction, the production was bold, ambitious, lavish and confident. The final scene is carried off with grand bravado, and showed real directorial flair; touches such as the choir, the device of the river boat and the use of the pulpit showed a degree of craft and attention to detail sorely lacking from a good deal of productions this term. Certain ideas didn't work as well: the faintly meta-theatrical commentary to-audience pieces failed to work as a linking device, and rather reminded me of those in-character educational tour guides who dress up- best dropped. This aside, the production is an excitingly ambitious piece, carried by two top-drawer performances from Iley-Williamson and Shields; make that three top-drawer performances: St Mary's is stunning throughout.

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William Bond

at 11:20 on 30th Nov 2011

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“Man He made to serve Him wittily”: More’s comment here, explaining his choice of action and (apparent) inaction in the face of prosecution, serves as a perfect figure for A Man for All Seasons, and particularly for Griff Rees’ ambitious and successful production. Comic dialogue is played elegantly against grim reality, without allowing either the events to seem trivial or the comedy forced. We follow Thomas More (Barney Iley-Williamson) in his development from trusted Councillor of King Henry (Matija Vlatkovic) to suspected traitor, watching friends turn against him, his family begin to despair and his terrifying rival Thomas Cromwell (David Shields) come into his own.

Played out in The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the cast’s first success was in its engagement with that rather wonderful set. Apart from a cabinet, tables and a few chairs, we were presented with no set other than the church itself. Wolsey is framed by stone arches for an office, Norfolk commands authority from the pulpit in the closing scene, and of course the audience were sitting in pews. While the decor was authentic in that it really was a building which existed at the time, it occasionally caused problems. Unfortunately, the environment didn’t lend itself to good acoustics, and some lines, particularly in the first half, were lost. From five pews back, it was often difficult to see the action and I even missed the entrances of a couple of shorter actors because of the row of heads in front. However, brilliant use was also made of the space: while one scene was taking place on stage, we would catch glimpses of other characters (sometimes those under discussion) walking down aisles and into shadows, and we were sharply reminded of the dangers of intrigue - that no space at court is really as safe and as separate from the world as a conventional end-on stage.

Iley-Williamson’s More is controlled and his comic timing is impeccable. In both the questioning and the trial, he is strong, allowing his voice to rise with the energy. Onstage with Meg (Maya Thomas-Davis) and Alice (Natasha Heliotis), he is comfortable and the family seems genuinely close. This falls slightly flat in the later tower-scene: when we might expect a little fearful madness from More, with his mind constantly on the prospect of torture, he remains for the most part calm and rational. While his initial fear at seeing his family in the tower is strong and (and for a few moments bordering on manic), on finding that they are still safe, he is happy and then relaxes, and the rest of the scene is as comfortable and low-key as those in the domestic setting. This scene excepted, the second act was gripping and the energy high. In court, we watch Shields’ Cromwell work his way towards securing More’s death. He is vocally very powerful, but - like Iley-Williamson - he is calm. He never moves Cromwell towards outright villainy, keeping him instead cold, and (with sudden glances and the occasional shout) slowly builds a tense and interesting relationship with Norfolk (Alex Hill), which is well worth watching out for.

Perhaps the only big issue was the asides to the audience. An educational interlude near the beginning of the second act was unnecessary, and felt a little like comic relief before the play had become so grim that it needed it. Orowa Sikder’s “Common Man”, whose task it was to give the audience directly a normal person’s opinion, was equally jarring. This can be put down partly to the script. But frequently his lines were entirely lost, even when he spoke from the very front of the stage, and his characterisation was difficult to pin down beyond of a general sense of anxiety.

Overall, the performance was a brilliant first night, and I would recommend to anyone, whether or not the subject matter is familiar ground.

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