Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, from 1960, brings vivid life to the story of Henry VIII and his conflict with his Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. Now, Madison’s Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey presents a new mounting of this classic play, and it is as sumptuous a feast as any King Henry ever hosted.
It is the tumultuous 1530s. Sir Thomas More (Thomas Michael Hammond) is a well-to-do member of the nobility, an intellectual, an author, and an expert in the law, well-respected and well-liked. His cozy household includes his wife, Alice (Mary Stillwaggon Stewart), their daughter Margaret (Brianna Martinez), and Margaret’s suitor (and later husband), William Roper (Ty Lane), a budding solicitor.
King Henry VIII (Roger Clark), having married Catherine of Aragon (widow of his brother Arthur), has only his daughter Mary for an heir. Infatuated with Anne Boleyn and desirous of having a son to succeed him, Henry seeks an annulment of his wedding, as Anne will not have relations with him unless he marries her. Unable to get an annulment from the Pope, Henry breaks off the Church of England from the Church of Rome, declares his marriage to Catherine as null and void, and marries Anne. To bolster his position, Henry orders the nobles of the land, including More, who is now his Lord Chancellor, to sign an oath declaring Henry to be head of the Church and his marriage to Anne to be legitimate.
More refuses to sign the oath but maintains his silence regarding his opinion of the King’s religious split and second marriage. More faces increasing pressures from all involved – the King’s Secretary, Thomas Cromwell (James McMenamin), More’s old friends the Duke of Norfolk (Anthony Marble) and Ambassador Chapuys (Edward Furs) of the Holy Roman Empire, and even Alice and Roper — to either sign the oath or state his reasons for not doing so.
Director Paul Mullins guides his cast through the intrigues of the Sixteenth Century English court, starting at a measured, leisurely pace, increasing the heat of intellectual passion until it reaches the boiling point of More’s trial for bribery. The cast is headed by Thomas Michael Hammond’s powerful gravitas as Thomas More. The outstanding ensemble includes Kevin Isola’s Common Man, slyly narrating the play while taking on several roles as servants, tradesmen, and even an aggrieved widow; Brianna Martinez as Margaret More, with a bold intellect of her own behind a pretty face; the slippery courtier Richard Rich of Aaron McDaniel, always out for the main chance; Anthony Marble’s Norfolk and Mary Stillwaggon Stuart’s Alice, who hide soft hearts for More under their gruff exteriors; and James McMenamin’s Cromwell, too clever by half in his pursuit of the King’s goals.
Charlie Calvert’s stark set, with a table and a few chairs, transforms into More’s estate, trial chambers, and a cell in the Tower of London with ease. It is subtly lit by Michael Giannitti. Andrea Hood’s costumes are rich and plain by turns, reflecting the characters’ mental and physical states as the play progresses.
More’s story, as told by playwright Bolt, speaks to a situation that has always been with us since the first rulers in history emerged: the strength and inviolability of a single human conscience, even when all around are in opposition, and the power of the shiny baubles of fame, position, and wealth to corrupt otherwise noble souls. A Man for All Seasons is a perfect play for this autumnal season, and I cannot more strongly urge you to see it.
A Man for All Seasons is presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison through Nov. 5, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600.