English playwright Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons (AMFAS), which opens on Dec 7 at Pentas 2, Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), presents a very pertinent question.
Are we willing to stand by the principles and beliefs we hold on dearly to?
The play’s protagonist Sir Thomas More paid dearly and sacrificed high office, his social standing and, ultimately, his life for staying true to his principles and conscience.
“People watching A Man For All Seasons would probably ask themselves, ‘Could I be that good?’. We would love to think we can but when push comes to shove, would we do it?” says Scottish stage actor Charles Donnelly, who plays the titular role here.
Indeed, it was this theme that quite immediately caught the attention of Joe Hasham, The Actors Studio (TAS) and Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre’s (KLPac) co-founder and artistic director, who directs this latest production, when he first read it decades ago.
He went on to stage it at Panggung Bandaraya DBKL in 1991 and once more in 2004 at TAS in Bangsar, KL.
“The play has a strong sense of belief and principles is a very strong theme. You’ve got the main character who many would think is something of a fool because of the way he believed that his God was greater than his king and country.
“God above everything else. This is the journey this man takes and it is such a powerful story. I was simply riveted by it, ” says the 70-year-old director in a recent interview.
Hasham has gone back to this powerful work to conclude TAS’ 30th anniversary celebration this year. This show is supported by Yayasan Hasanah and British Council Malaysia.
The 180-minute A Man For All Seasons (with a 15-minute intermission) features Donnelly, 69, Patrick Teoh, 72, Qahar Aqilah, 37, Debra Teng, 50, Mia Sara Shauki, 20, Colin Kirton, 59, Reza Zainal Abidin, 51, Vale Wong, 36, Na’a Murad, 54, Omar Ali, 36, Tung Jit Yang, 29, Murtada Ibrahim, 38, Axyr William, 20 and Hannan Barakbah, 26.
The play, which was adapted into a multiple award-winning movie in 1969, is loosely based on the historical events leading up to the unfortunate execution of Sir Thomas More (Donnelly), the 16th century Chancellor of England.
More resolutely refuses to endorse King Henry VIII’s (Na’a) wish to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon, who failed to bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.
As a devout Catholic, More stands by his principles, even at the risk of his life, despite many attempts by the king to egg him on. This doesn’t sit well with his rival Thomas Cromwell (Teoh), a lawyer and statesman, who is infuriated with More’s defiance.
“I’m the bad guy in the story. Cromwell is ambitious and ruthless and wants to help engineer Henry’s divorce from Queen Catharine. He is not beyond deceit and using perjury to get his way. He sees More as a most unreasonable person and doesn’t understand his need to stick to his principles to the point of death, ” says Teoh, who originally played Cardinal Wolsey in TAS’s 1991 production.
Teoh remembers his first steps into the world of theatre with this production.
“At the time, Joe and Faridah (Merican) were friends and clients of my recording studio for their advertising work. Joe had conducted an acting course prior to that production in which I was a student.
“After the course, he casually asked me if I would like to be cast in a play that he and Faridah would be producing. And I, just as casually said yes. Joe cast me in the role of Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor. My scene with Thomas More, played by the late Leslie Dawson lasted all of six or seven minutes I think.
“And the rest, they say, is history. I was fortunate that the critics were kind and from that first step on the boards I began to get offers from other theatre companies as well as from Joe and Faridah for their later productions.”
Twenty eight years later, Teoh finally gets his wish to play his preferred role in this play.
“Even back then, I had told Joe that the role I would like to play is that of Cromwell, ” he mentions.
Is this upcoming show also a timely conversation piece in relation to Malaysia - past, present and future?
“My world view? The Malaysia of 1991 was... a little different from the Malaysia Baharu of today. For me, in more ways than one, it was a better Malaysia. We felt closer as citizens of one country, we worked hard, together, we respected and understood each other’s religions, cultures and unique needs. We were more Malaysian than Malays, Chinese, Indians and others, ” says Teoh.
On stage, the exchanges between Cromwell and More are bound to be explosive.
In the end, More refuses to give in to the king’s demand no matter what and was convicted of treason and finally executed.
More was also a featured character in the hit television series The Tudors (2007), which chronicles the life and exploits of King Henry VIII.
“Here is a man with very strong morals, devout, strong willed and principled. Something we don’t find nowadays unfortunately, ” says Hasham.
“Having gone through a Catholic upbringing myself, I can relate very strongly to him. It’s something you can’t shake off which is why I can’t understand people who don’t have or live by principles.”
Donnelly, who’s no stranger to the KL stage, agrees with Hasham. But the Glasgow-born stage actor believes the audience may also “look at the character and say he’s an idiot. Why doesn’t he just give in and live the best life he possibly can?”
Describing his character as “complicated”, Donnelly, whose stage credits in KL include Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me (2011 and 2012), The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged) (2012) and Shakespeare’s Men (2016), says More stands out because he was so clever.
“He was focused and knew exactly the right thing to do. But it’s not easy being him and ultimately, he paid dearly with his life.”
In the end, while the play may be a classic and historic in nature, Bolt deals with very real and relevant themes.
“It all boils down to, ‘Can I live with myself?’. As long as I can wake up every morning and sleep every night and say ‘Yes, I can live with myself. I’m fine and happy’, then all’s good.
“But there are times to be able to do that, you have to do certain things and not conform. Don’t just do something because people want you to, ” cautions Hasham.
“Truly, it’s that thing about looking in the mirror and asking whether you like looking at the person looking back at you, ” concludes Donnelly.
A Man For All Seasons plays at Pentas 2, KLPac, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Sultan Azlan Shah in KL from Dec 7-14. Showtimes: Dec 7 (8pm), Dec 10-14 (8pm). Dec 8 and 15 shows at 3pm. Tickets: RM100, RM80 and RM60. More info: www.klpac.org.
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Gallery: A Man For All Seasons
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