When More truly is more

With two classic plays about Sir Thomas More coming to the West End, Michael Coveney hopes that 2006 will herald the return of epic drama on stage
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The Independent Culture

Just like waiting for the proverbial bus, you go to the theatre for years and never give a thought to Sir Thomas More, and suddenly there he is, coming along large as life and twice as saintly, in two places, and two plays, at once. While the Royal Shakespeare Company is bringing its rare revival of the Elizabethan Thomas More from last summer's Stratford-upon-Avon season to the Trafalgar Studios in January, Bill Kenwright is producing Robert Bolt's hardy perennial, A Man for All Seasons, at the Haymarket (previewing now, opens 4 January).

The two plays have more in common than just their hero. They are epic studies of a good man's conscience, with a canvas of historical and social reference that puts most contemporary drama to shame.

Thomas More is a committee job - five dramatists, including Shakespeare, lent a hand - that shrinks historical time from More's quelling of a riot in 1517 over immigrants and asylum-seekers (the great speech is the Bard's) through to his lord-chancellorship and execution in 1535 in loyal Catholic defiance of King Henry's decision to divorce Catherine of Aragon.

Bolt's play concentrates only on this last episode but, whereas the older play, for all its interest, is diffuse and, frankly, boring in parts, A Man for All Seasons is a supple, sinewy text that, despite its slight aura of West End cosiness, asks still-pertinent questions about political expediency and truth. In an age less fastidious than our own, Bolt's narrator, the Common Man, declares that "imprisonment without trial, and even examination under torture, were common practice". Well, we've clearly become less fastidious again.

This character was a striking innovation at the time, opening out the play to an audience in terms that were aesthetically, if not politically, Brechtian. The shock and power of the original performance - in 1960, this was the first play I ever saw on a West End stage - came from this device as much as from Paul Scofield's riveting performance (repeated in the 1966 Fred Zinnemann movie, which collected six Oscars).

Bolt had in fact written the play for radio in 1954, and it had been televised three years later, so Brecht was still unknown in Britain (the Berliner Ensemble's influential London visit was in 1956, the same year as Look Back in Anger). Still, the critic Kenneth Tynan, posting comparisons with Brecht's Galileo, concluded that "Bolt looks at history exclusively through the eyes of his saintly hero. Brecht's vision is broader: he looks at Galileo through the eyes of history".

Robert Bolt died 10 years ago, best known, apart from this play, for his 1960s screenplays of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan's Daughter of 1970. He was part of the last West End hurrah of the theatrical company H M Tennant, so his plays rarely figure in histories of the period, which focus on Pinter and the Royal Court writers. But Bolt wrote some great roles. Indeed, Scofield reneged on a promise to join Peter Hall's fledgling RSC in order to play Thomas More (though he made good the dereliction with interest when he joined up to play King Lear in 1962, after he had taken A Man for All Seasons to Broadway). And if Bolt's play has acquired a musty status, it is on account of its popularity in amateur and school performances. Indeed, even its last West End outing, starring Charlton Heston in 1987, was a drab affair, with Heston wearing so many wigs on top of his own hairpiece that, by the time he was executed, it must have been a welcome weight off his mind.

Any new production must renew its "outdoor" epic and emotional force, something audiences have experienced in Schiller's Mary Stuart in the West End this season. It is no coincidence that a later play of Bolt's, Vivat! Vivat Regina! (famously misheard by a copytaker as "Rivat! Rivat Vagina!") is a less high-toned version of that same fictional encounter between Mary and Elizabeth; he had an eye for the historical main chance.

Michael Rudman, the director of the Bolt revival, which stars Martin Shaw as Thomas More, thinks of the play as "very modern" in its analysis of "the encroaching state", and "epic" only insofar as it has a lot of scenes. "He wrote it when he didn't know so much about theatre. Like a lot of brilliant people, he had a brilliant conceit and it suits the story very well. He makes the audience aware that they are in a theatre and, in the second act, even tells them what happened to the characters after the play, which is very unusual."

Not many British playwrights aim as high and as handsome as Bolt these days, and not often with a view to pleasing an audience beyond the fringe. Most modern drama is crippled by personal obsessions (of the playwrights, not the characters) and low social and political horizons. Innovation (in dance and "physical" theatre) has become dislocated from intellectual content. (The outstanding playwright of 2005 was, however, David Greig, who does think big even though most of his work appears small, ie in studio theatres).

Ironically, as the Royal Court gears up for its 50th anniversary, a most un-Royal Court type of play, A Man for All Seasons, might provide a few pointers for the future programme, especially among that peculiar group of fringe writers known as "The Monsterists", now demanding big stages and big budgets. When they have them, though, what will they write about?

'Thomas More', Trafalgar Studios, London SW1 (0870 060 6632), 4 to 14 January 2006; 'A Man for All Seasons', Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1 (0870 901 3356), to 1 April 2006