Henry VIII, Act 2, Scene 3
I have something shameful to admit… I have not in fact read either ‘Wolf Hall’ or ‘Bring Up The Bodies’ yet, despite their Booker prizes, incredible reputation and interesting subject matter. Honestly I meant to! I just didn’t quite get round to it…
However, I did go and see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s equally lauded adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels at the Aldwych Theatre one night after the other this week – and they certainly lived up to my (very high) expectations. The fact that I haven’t read the books means that, for once, I wasn’t constantly comparing it in my head; actually rather relaxing! Saying that, I studied the Tudor reformation of the church at school and have read books and seen films about it before – so I wasn’t going in completely blind.
The two plays focus on the rise and partial fall of a usually scorned and disliked character: Thomas Cromwell. In ‘Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies’ however, he becomes the protagonist of the piece; perhaps not always exactly heroic and certainly not moral, but at the very least, likeable. Basically, a good Cromwell is the key to this play’s success. Luckily (or, rather, skilfully), Ben Miles is absolute perfection in the role, carrying both nights on his shoulders as a down-to-earth, brusque, matter-of-fact and yet cunning wolf of a man (appropriately). Each night lasted almost three hours and Miles is on stage virtually constantly; and yet he was consistently energetic and watchable. Honestly, I cannot praise him enough… and he has very calming voice – they should get him to read out the audiobooks.
Miles was the main star amongst many other incredibly strong actors. My personal favourites were Nathaniel Parker, who made the usually nasty King Henry VIII seem charming and almost pious… in his own way of course; Joshua Silver, who was brilliant as Demetrius is ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at the Globe last year, and who was like a mini Cromwell, as Rafe Sadler, his right hand man; Olivia Darnley as Cromwell’s wife Lizzie and a flirty Mary Boleyn; and Paul Jesson as a highly immoral but very amusing Cardinal Wolsey. Daniel Fraser was also great in showing the development from child to man in Gregory Cromwell, Thomas’ son.
Although the stakes are as high as they can be and there is constant tension and life-or-death moments (usually ending in death – this is Tudor times, after all), the script is still very relatable, not only because of the modern dialogue but also because of the frequent bursts of comedy. Hardly any of the characters are perfectly pleasant (Cromwell threatens men with torture, sentences them to death without knowing for sure their guilt or innocence; Anne Boleyn (a controlling, power-hungry Lydia Leonard) manipulates anyone who will let her; King Henry himself convinces himself of his own piety whilst using anything he can to get his own way; even Jane Seymour (Lucy Briers) is not the innocent victim she is often portrayed as, more an astute, scheming young woman with the same, but less obvious, desire as Anne.
The set was dark but not too gloomy, meaning that with different lighting, music and props (there were some great on stage fireplaces which appeared out of nowhere) it could transform from ominous to cosy. Castles, stately homes, family houses, prisons and even river boats seemed perfectly at home on the stage, and the back of the stage was used very well for atmospheric funeral processions.
Strikingly for a play about such a bloody era and with a title about bodies, there were not actual onstage deaths. This almost made the whole process more miserable – we saw the ‘bodies’, or accused men, line up at the back, and just knew that they would never be seen alive again. A clever twist by director Jeremy Herrin at the end highlights King Henry’s unseemly haste in marrying Jane on the day of Anne’s execution, and Jane is ominously accompanied by her two predecessors Katherine and Anne both dressed in mourning and black veils as she binds herself to Henry.
As I was told on Twitter, one simply cannot separate these two plays; they go together so perfectly and have so much the same atmosphere that it feels as if a day never passed between them. My only real problems with them were minor; whilst Matthew Pidgeon was excellent as Eustache Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, his accent almost brought to mind Le Comte de Froufrou, the French aristocrat in Blackadder (video attached for your enjoyment 😉 ). Briers as Jane Seymour also had a very odd speech pattern – I think this basically worked by showing her as strong behind her seeming vulnerability, but it did become slightly annoying by the end. The last ten minutes of ‘Wolf Hall’ slightly lost their pace and I would be interested to see how much someone who knew little about Tudor politics would enjoy this.
One word of warning: don’t bother buying the programme. Whilst the RSC programmes are usually great value for money and very informative, these were £6 for just one night (if you’re running them as a duo, have both in one!) and had surprisingly few articles. The production and rehearsal photos were great, but I just feel they should have combined both plays in one, especially for such an expensive price.
Apart from that, this is an excellent production of a modern classic. Ben Miles is outstanding as Thomas Cromwell, and you should go and see the plays for his performance alone. I’m looking forward to seeing how different his and Mark Rylance’s performances are after the TV serial of the novels comes out later this year. The rest of the cast certainly hold their own beside Miles, and the whole production is classy, pacy and gripping. If you can get tickets over its last month, I promise you it’ll be worth it.