Thomas More, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Bard's hand in demise of More fails to create tragedy for all seasons
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Since the 1920s, it has been generally accepted that Shakespeare wrote parts of Thomas More - indeed, some of the manuscript is believed to be in Shakespeare's handwriting, the only surviving example apart from a handful of signatures.

Since the 1920s, it has been generally accepted that Shakespeare wrote parts of Thomas More - indeed, some of the manuscript is 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 new staging for the Royal Shakespeare Company is the first major production.

The reasons for this delay aren't hard to locate: first, Shakespeare's contribution was not large - though 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 something of a mess. This is perhaps not surprising, given that around four other writers had a hand in it - Anthony Munday (who gets top billing here); Henry Chettle; Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood.

It may also have been revised to satisfy the demands of the censor: More, who died a Catholic martyr having defied Henry VIII, was not a hero calculated to win the approval of the Protestant authorities under Henry's daughter, Elizabeth.

Whatever the reasons, the play is desperately uneven. Yet it is not hard to detect reasons for trying it out now, as part of the RSC's Gunpowder season of plays leading to the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. The action begins in topical mode, with Londoners groaning at the injustices they suffer at the hands of foreign incomers.

Their anger is defused by More, who has a reputation as a friend of the poor and is swiftly elevated to the position of Lord Chancellor.

His downfall is just as swift: asked on the King's behalf to sign unspecified papers, More and the Bishop of Rochester ask for time to think the matter over. Next thing you know, he's under house-arrest, followed by imprisonment in the tower and execution.

Nigel Cooke is adept at conveying More's decency and good humour. The most effective moments are, surprisingly, comic - Peter Bramhill as a pocket-picking wideboy, and a troop of seedy actors presenting a spoof morality play.

But with Henry VIII an offstage presence, and no real sense of what More has done to deserve beheading, the tragedy operates in a vacuum. So does Delamere's production. Simon Higlett's design seems to place the action inside a derelict theatre, but the reference isn't taken up and the reasons remain obscure.

I felt a new respect for the way Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons places the story so firmly within its period, and humanises the politics. Thomas More is undoubtedly a major Shakespearean curiosity; but not much more than that.

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