Since the 1920s, it has been generally accepted that Shakespeare wrote parts of Thomas More - indeed, some pages of the manuscript are believed to be in Shakespeare's handwriting, the only surviving example apart from a handful of signatures. Despite its importance to scholars, though, Robert Delamere's staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company is the first major production.
The reasons for this delay aren't hard to locate: first, Shakespeare was one of five authors of the play, and his contribution was not large - although he is credited with the crucial scene in which More talks down a rioting London mob, thereby putting himself on the fast-track to royal favour and high office. Second, the play is desperately uneven. There are some striking moments mixed up with long, dry tracts in which nothing much happens, and happens without compensating eloquence.
But there are good reasons for trying Thomas More out now, as part of the RSC's Gunpowder season, marking the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. The action begins in sharply topical mode, with the people of London groaning at the injustices they suffer at the hands of foreign incomers: "Aliens and strangers eat the bread from the fatherless children, and take the living from all the artificers." It could almost be a Daily Mail editorial, or a Conservative Party poster.
Their anger is defused by Thomas More, whose message about the virtues of obedience to the king is accepted because of his reputation as a friend of the poor and a pretty straight kind of guy.
We see More swiftly elevated to the position of lord chancellor, and learn of his international reputation for wisdom through a visit from Erasmus (a faintly silly Euro-intellectual in a black polo-neck). In the second half, his downfall comes just as swiftly: asked on the king's behalf to sign unspecified papers, More decides to think the matter over. This procrastination leads him, via rather too much speechifying, to the scaffold.
Nigel Cooke conveys More's decency, but the script doesn't give him much chance to put over his intelligence. The most effective moments are, surprisingly, comic ones - Peter Bramhill as a pocket-picking wideboy, a troop of seedy actors presenting a spoof morality play (with Vanity a curiously effective drag version of Marlene Dietrich). But with Henry VIII an offstage presence, and no sense of what More has done to deserve his fate, the tragedy operates in a vacuum.
So does Delamere's production. Simon Higlett's design places the action inside a derelict theatre, though the production doesn't offer any good reason for this. Costumes are a hotchpotch of vaguely modern references - City types, Weimar decadence. Still, the production is fluid, and a more coherent conception might sit awkwardly with this ragged play. I felt a new respect for the way Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons placed the story in a historical context and made the politics so human. Thomas More is a major Shakespearean curiosity, and worth seeing on that account; I don't think it is much more than that.
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