Robert Bolt’s play tells the story of the early life, imprisonment and death of Thomas More. Setting it in a church provides two things: firstly a rather handy ready-made set which lends itself very well to the Tudor period, and a constant reminder of the religious significance of everything going on. Even when the action moves away from religious places, the actual altar of the church stands at the back, centre stage, with the cross as the focal point. Powerfully, we sit in a religious building that is a consequence of the actions that we are watching played out on the stage.
The characters wear very authentic (to my eyes – I shall confess I am not a medieval costumes expert, but I was utterly convinced) period costume, and yet we see these metatheatrical everymen and everywomen putting on seemingly naturalistic costumes before our eyes. At once the illusion is complete and carried through with conviction, but also very theatrically aware.
The press preview was challenging because, being in a church, there were all kinds of good Christian churchgoers and tourists milling around. At the start I wasn’t entirely sold on Barney Iley-Williamson’s Thomas More, but as the play went on – perhaps as he started to ignore all of the chatter around, perhaps as he warmed up, or perhaps as the character develops in the actual script – he really grew on me, and by the end of the preview it was a very strong performance. The cast show several strengths, particularly Jean-Patrick Vieu as Wolsey and Natasha Heliotis as Alice More. There is a real humanity to the performance of these characters, who were brought out by sensitive directing and careful performances.
Partly it’s just a great play, but every part of the direction, design and acting is carried out with precision and attention to detail. And it is this meticulousness that made this production stand out for me, even down to an authentically made ‘custard’ – a pudding from the time. No Mr Kipling standing in, but even for the press preview, a genuine period dessert.
Every part of the illusion of this production is presented with care and conviction. Along with the thoughtful church setting, the play shows us that these are not historically distant events, but things to which we can connect and of which we can still feel the consequences.