In a day and age when devotion to a moral and religious belief is deemed unenviable or even overzealous, it nevertheless feels timely that the story of one such figure in history, Sir Thomas More, is being brought back to the stage to be scrutinised.
The English lawyer and statesman lived during the Renaissance under the reign of Henry VIII, who made him Lord High Chancellor of England. More was executed when he refused to acknowledge the Tudor king as Supreme Head of the Church of England after Henry annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn.
The political machinations that led to the downfall of More were immortalised in a play by Robert Bolt that premiered at the Globe Theatre in 1960 to critical acclaim before it went on to Broadway. The play was subsequently made into a film in 1966 that won six Academy Awards, four Golden Globes and seven BAFTA Awards. This was followed by another 1988 tele-movie adaptation.
A Man For All Seasons is not new to Malaysian audiences. The Actors Studio first presented the play in 1991, two years after the theatre company was established, and re-staged it in 2004 during its 15th anniversary. Now, as the company founded by Joe Hasham and Datuk Faridah Merican comes to the tail-end of its 30th anniversary celebrations, it seems apt that it culminates in a play that straddles the convergence of faith, government and society, seen through the lens of a man standing against the tide.
It is certainly pertinent as a mirror of our current sociopolitical landscape and the sentiments it evokes. Interestingly, Options had a taste of clashing worldviews when we sat down for a chat with two of the 15-strong cast for the 2019 production.
Glasgow-based veteran Charles Donnelly has been coming to our shores since 2010 and is perhaps best known here for his performance in the critically acclaimed production of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, also by The Actors Studio. He stars as Thomas More. Singaporean Debra Teng, whose body of work stretches across TV, film and stage, plays his wife, Alice.
“Oh, we hate each other,” Teng quips when asked about the dynamics of the relationship between More and his wife. “That about sums it up,” Donnelly nods without skipping a beat.
But they do have differing viewpoints when it comes to More’s refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy and his silent opposition of King Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church. “This guy, because of his morals, principles and religion, refused to bend, even though the result was the cost of his head and household ... everything was confiscated. From today’s perspective, it is regarded as incredibly selfish and I don’t know if anyone in that same position won’t cave and still hold on to their conscience because he’s sacrificing his entire family, causing them pain and suffering. But it was a different perception of morals at that time and his values did not allow him to give in,” Donnelly observes.
Teng feels that More could have been more decisive. “To the end, he refused to say whether he supported the king or not, and as far as Alice was concerned, I think part of her frustration was that she understood him but nevertheless wanted him to pick one or the other, and stop being wishy-washy about it.”
Calling her character a gutsy woman who did not fear speaking out, which conversely, was what More could not do until the end, Teng says the challenge for her is to make sure that in the limited number of scenes in which Alice appears, she is able to consistently show her as a person while also reflecting the development and changes that have gone on while she is not seen, and how it has impacted her.
On the other hand, Donnelly is on stage for about 90% of the 2½-hour show. Acknowledging that his character is an anomaly in today’s world, the actor says he had to revisit his childhood memories for inspiration.
“When I was growing up, all good Catholic boys wanted to be priests ... Joe [Hasham] was going to be a priest too, can you imagine that? They were up on a pedestal and could do no wrong. Of course now, it’s a very different perception but I tried to reference that sense of [pure reverence] and worked from there.”
What good political saga doesn’t have great villains to spice things up? Respected even before his demise for his virtues, Thomas More had no lack of people who wanted him out of their way. He had thought that silence would guarantee him safety under the law, but it was not a good defence against those who plotted against him.
This is played out more intricately in the stage version than in the films. Taking the role of key antagonist Thomas Cromwell is Patrick Teoh, who had played Cardinal Wolsey in the first staging in 1991, which marked his acting debut.
“I would like to say this is an ensemble work,” Donnelly says humbly, but then good-naturedly remarks, “Trust Patrick to get the best part of the baddie and upstage the rest of us.”
Working for the fourth time with Joe, Donnelly says the director’s subtle and unique style of guiding his actors is something to get used to but that it works for him. Teng chimes in, admitting she is still getting used to it. But she says she is thrilled to work with Joe and Faridah, adding that the Malaysian theatre scene has inspired her. “I am blown away by what’s going on. I can see that it takes a lot more effort to make things happen here, yet the passion is also stronger. I’ve heard so much about Joe and Faridah as well, so it’s great to be able to work with them.”
Donnelly says smilingly, “For me, it just feels like coming home. I love the people; I don’t know if they’re really nice or just barking mad.”
A Man For All Seasons also stars Qahar Aqilah, Mia Sara Shauki, Colin Kirton, Reza Zainal Abidin, Vale Wong, Na’a Murad, Omar Ali, Tung Jit Yang, Murtada Ibrahim, Axyr William and Hannan Barakbah.
This article first appeared on Dec 2, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.