PROVO – A Man For All Seasons is one of those plays that I’ve known about of all my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I was aware of the movie growing up, and probably saw parts of it at various times, but don’t remember ever seeing the whole thing. I’d learned about this time in British history in school, and read several books about the time period, but somehow I had never seen Robert Bolt’s play. I now know what I have been missing all these years.
BYU Department of Theatre and Media Arts has created a sparse but compelling production. The Margetts Theatre is a small and intimate space and just the right home for this play which is such an intimate examination of a man of conscience. The compact stage designed by Eric Fielding allowed for fairly smooth visual shifts from one scene to the next. This usually consisted of tables, stools and small props, with most of the shifts being made with transitioning dialog, although my companion that the transitions were too long and busy by the end of the evening. By that point in the show there was no filling dialogue to help with the scene shifts. The set is also cleverly decorated with quotes of particular meaning from Thomas More.
The acting, however, is where this particular production really shines. Ben Hopkin was stunning as Thomas More. He maintained a subtlety and magnificence through all the trials of conscience More was put through. This was most evident in the final scenes of the play when More is in prison and finally condemned to death. Hopkin ably conveys the faith More had in the law and the belief that the law would protect him. Ben Isaacs excelled as the multifaceted Common Man. In this production, he was also called on to play Cardinal Woolsey and King Henry VIII, the later of which he did with great panache. Isaacs portrayed a young, capricious Henry and gave a true sense of the shifting moods of the infamous monarch. The scene between Henry and More as the newly appointed Lord-Chancellor was one of the highlights of the show as they battled wits with each other over Henry’s intended divorce. My only complaint with Isaacs was the shifting accents. I’m not sure if it was a choice by the director or the actor, but he seemed to attempt a different accent to distinguish the characters, which seemed never to fully cohere and gave a muddling of accents. It is a minor complaint, but one that did take me out of the action on a few occasions.
The majority of the ensemble did well also, with Alex Trop’s Duke of Norfolk and Stephanie Breinholt‘s Alice More being standouts. Trop was most convincing in the scene toward the end of the play when More must force Norfolk to become his enemy to save him from implication in the inevitable morass that More is falling into. Trop’s anguish and transformation was palpable. Breinholt’s Alice was a firebrand who could not understand her husband’s reluctance to accept the oaths, but still respected and loved him for it. The scene where More’s family is forced to end their last visit to him in prison was heart wrenching. I did not care, however, for David John Banks as William Roper. I understand that the character passes through some vast philosophical changes in the course of the play, but he seems too whiny and sniveling at this first appearance for me to care much about this transformation.
Director David Morgan has created a taut production with excellent performances. I particularly loved the way he began and ended the play. I won’t spoil the fun of it, but it created nice bookends to the show. Morgan has marshaled this cast through a well-paced two hours that is never dull or unfocused. The costume design by Amy Veronin and Angela Asay was perhaps the weakest element for me. In the program notes they stated that they were doing a mashup of historical and modern, but this didn’t seem to extend to all costumes, and unfortunately, it took me out of the moment of too many occasions.
With some very trifling complaints, this staging of A Man for All Seasons shows how compelling theater can be when done well. BYU continues to surprise and delight me with their thoughtful productions, and this particular production will stand out as a favorite.