Saturday, October 25, 2008

The king's good servant

My review of the Roundabout Theatre Company's Broadway revival of Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons is in this week's Commonweal. Once again, you've got to subscribe to read it online. But I can tell you that director Doug Hughes decided to cut out the character of The Common Man -- with, unfortunately, little regard for how that character functions in the play and what would be lost without him performing that function. Here's a taste of my take:
The self-conscious narrator is undoubtedly an old-fashioned device -- Bolt himself wrote that the character never worked as he intended in performance. He hoped that employing this Brechtian alienation technique would “draw the audience into the play” and give them a character to identify with. But critics heard the term “common” in a pejorative sense, and reacted to the perceived insult with umbrage, or (worse) smug approval. Nonetheless, Bolt himself never cut The Common Man from the fabric of the play, and Hughes’s decision to tear him out has left some ungainly holes. The water imagery that flows through the script, suggesting the chaos that lies outside the protection of the law, is compromised. The unity of the many roles played by The Common Man is fractured, and dialogue that once referred to his speeches now makes no sense. Over the course of the play, these little changes cause significant structural damage, draining the dramatic tension and obscuring the story’s message.

Even without The Common Man, Hughes and his cast find ways to hold the audience at arm’s length. All the actors -- some excellent, many miscast -- speak in the stagy not-quite-British accents of an amateur Shakespeare repertory company. In the role of Thomas More, Tony Award-winner Frank Langella tiptoes around any imitation of Scofield without ever finding his own way into the character. He declaims More’s speeches in his sonorous voice, sliding from a low growl to a noisy shout with studied precision, but the result is cold and artificial. Langella’s calculated posturing and posing is more distracting than any narrator figure could have been.

I love this play, so I was disappointed to see it so poorly treated. I have also been disappointed by the lazy criticism I've read since I turned in my review. Brantley's review in the NYT boiled down to "That was boring - huh, I guess the play isn't as good as everybody thought it was." But if he (and everyone else who said basically the same thing) had reread the original text, he would have been able to diagnose the problem with this production. There's no tension, no ambiguity and no intellectual challenge because the character who provides all that was cut from the script! Thank God, as I often do, for Michael Feingold, who knew exactly what was missing:
Hughes omits [The Common Man] character, which is roughly like doing Threepenny Opera without the songs. The Common Man was one of the play's structural elements. Lacking him, it feels shabby, pompous, and monochrome—especially because Hughes and Langella have invented a bullyingly self-righteous More who ends every scene with a hoarse rant, ignoring the witticisms or whacking them at you with a sledgehammer, echoed by the pounding drums and crashing chords of David Van Tieghem's score.
I've also been surprised by all the positive marks Frank Langella is getting (from pretty much every critic other than Feingold). Maybe I saw him on a really, really off night...during press previews... but I felt like I was reading along in his marked-up script during every big speech. I could practically see where he had written, Shout these lines really loud... On this word, strike a noble pose. In short, I was always watching an actor reading lines, and listening to himself reading lines, instead of watching Sir Thomas More. Of course, Langella didn't get much help from the rest of the cast, some of whom were so amateurish I wondered whether the casting director had held auditions at all. One big exception is Zach Grenier, who is wonderful and easily steals the show as Cromwell.

My complaints about this production are really quite similar to my problems with last year's Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind. No coincidence, I guess, that it was also directed by Doug Hughes. He's a fine director of new work -- he had no trouble balancing the ambiguities and tensions in Doubt, for example -- but his approach to reviving these old, popular plays seems to be: read a synopsis to get a basic idea of what it's about; come up with some kind of "concept" to make this production qualify as a new and innovative take; hire a few reliable stars; play to the audience's prejudices so as to flatter them into applauding; cash the check and move on. Then as now, I felt that the casting was uneven, the text badly treated, the intellectual complications totally ignored. Instead of taking advantage of the script's ability to make us think, both revivals settled for congratulating us for being on the right side of the issue. That can't be the reason either of these plays was written, and I don't think it's the reason they're so popular today. I've seen amateur productions of both that were just as effective. So why pay Broadway prices?

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