People who will risk everything to follow their conscience are valuable in any century, including our own. Thus Robert Bolt’s superb play set in the 16th Century when Sir Thomas More was willing to die rather than betray his Catholic belief is ever timely. It was staged on Broadway in 1960 with Paul Scofield as More (Scofield also starred in the 1966 film version) and then in 2008 with Frank Langella as More. Now the role of More in the current revival by The Fellowship for Performing Arts is in the hands of the excellent Michael Countryman.
This is a scaled down off-Broadway staging, but it works up the requisite passion in the intimate atmosphere created. The action takes place in England from 1526-1535 during the reign of King Henry VIII. The issue is Henry’s desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon, who has not borne him a son as heir, in order to marry his young mistress Anne Boleyn. More as England’s Lord Chancellor is pressured to help square Henry’s divorce with the pope, but he refuses to do so out of his belief that it would betray his faith and principles. As a result More is framed in a trial for treason and goes to the chopping block.
Harry Bouvy, playing The Common Man, tells us what we are about to see as a venture into history, and then is in the play itself as different characters, including in the role of More’s executioner. Bouvy sets a jaunty tone in his interspersed comments with his skill and the personality he projects. But, of course, the play stands or falls on the central portrayal of More.
Countryman is laid back at first, but gradually builds into the position of defiance, his dramatic confrontations and finally his painful decision not to knuckle under. Acting with dignity, More rises above his accusers by firmly and verbally besting them and, bravely going to his execution even though it pains him to leave his wife and daughter. By the climactic scenes, Countryman has reached our emotions and earned the sympathy that More deserves for his role in history. It is not necessary to erase memories of other performances to appreciate the strength of what Countryman achieves.
Carolyn McCormick has excellent scenes as More’s wife, Lady Alice More, who, at first angry that he won’t comply to save himself, warns that she may hate him after he has gone, then expresses her deep affection in a final farewell when she and their daughter, Margaret (Kim Wong), are allowed a brief visit.
Kevyn Morrow is solid as the Duke of Norfolk, at first a friend, but who then turns on More as he joins those who convict him. David McElwee as Richard Rich nails his sliminess and opportunism as he is helped by More but later, advancing in materialism and station, bears false witness at the trial.
The cast also includes Trent Dawson has King Henry; John Ahlin as both Cardinal Wolsey and Spanish ambassador to England Sigñor Chapuys; Todd Cerveris as the manipulative Thomas Cromwell, and Sean Dugan as both William Roper, who marries Margaret, and Archbishop Cranmer.
Director Christa Scott-Reed succeeds in stressing key aspects of Bolt’s play despite the small scale of the staging against a background of minimal scenery geared to suggest the 16th century period (scenic design by Steven C. Kemp.) This may be a small production, but, acted and staged with intensity, the play still speaks to us. At the Acorn Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed January 30, 2019.