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Wolf Hall/ Bring Up the Bodies, Aldwych Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Wolf Hall/ Bring Up the Bodies, Aldwych Theatre

Wolf Hall/ Bring Up the Bodies, Aldwych Theatre

Hilary Mantel's prizewinning Cromwell novels transfer to the stage with verve

Rivals for Henry's favour: Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) and Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard)Images © Keith Pattison

Hilary Mantel’s two Thomas Cromwell novels have captured an enormous new readership for history with their crackling sense of place and immediacy of tension - the plays created on them, now brought to London by the Royal Shakespeare Company, are relishable creations of different virtues. Mantel’s exquisitely detailed,  emotionally penetrating descriptions of weather, place or internal worries aren’t to be found.

Instead, we get top-speed action and plot, as Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and the ubiquitous, observant Thomas Cromwell scythe through English history in big, bold strokes. Seeing both plays in one day is immensely enjoyable - the six hours whizz by.

The pace comes from the focus, in Mike Poulton’s stripped-back dramatisation, on Mantel’s dialogue, as short and to the point as her descriptions are rococo. In Wolf Hall Anne Boleyn’s rise and Katherine of Aragon’s fall in Henry’s affections are shown in bursts of concise, sharp drama; In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell’s combat with Anne Boleyn for influence over Henry comes to a fatal head. It is not Shakespearean, nor is it a highbrow The Tudors. The richness is less in the characters’ speeches than in the actors’ work to colour in their tightly edited roles with modern theatrical force, using Mantel’s luxurious characterisation to direct them.

Henry, Anne and courtDirector Jeremy Herrin moves the many characters around the Aldwych’s small stage as deftly as chess pieces. Christopher Oram’s strongly period costumes are mostly dark, with blazing eyefuls of colour from the all-scarlet Wolsey, Anne Boleyn in gold or crimson, and Jane Seymour in white. Oram places their Tudor opulence in a grey-box set, narrow and high, inside which Paule Constable’s fine lighting evokes dungeons, cathedrals, chilly medieval castles, or rowing on the Thames in rain. The sound design by Nick Powell is also a telling contribution: Mark Smeaton plucks his lute quietly, the ghosts in Cromwell’s mind speak in oddly disembodied echoing. 

It is relevant that as a result we feel very present in "now", because the topic at issue is still amazingly sensitive. Mantel reaffirmed yesterday her audacious suggestion of last year that the chief constitutional expectation of royal wives such as Kate Middleton and Diana Spencer was still, nearly half a millennium after Henry, to breed heirs.

Here it is writ large, that for Henry VIII, as the son of a king who came to the throne through violence, a peaceful succession was his overriding concern. The first of the two plays is less about Cromwell than Henry’s wrestling with his certainly devout conscience about how the hell to get round the fact that his wife Katherine is past child-bearing age and has left him one rigidly religious and resentful daughter as England’s next monarch. England is a patriarchy, and without a male monarch the peace that Henries VII and VIII have brought to England for nearly half a century will be certainly overthrown. It’s the great strength of this staging of Wolf Hall that it reminds us of the turmoil of that genuine original dynastic anxiety, felt by all corners of a war-torn island.

Henry nightgownIn fact, where the motor of the books is Cromwell’s search to give himself an identity, in the theatrical dramatisations the beating heart is Henry’s longing for a male buddy in a desperately tense world (Right, Nathaniel Parker as Henry). Thomases Wolsey, More and Cromwell are the King’s three successive soulmates, all of whom he will happily bend rules for - Wolsey for his relish and worldly culture, More for his unwavering sense of righteousness, Cromwell for his ability to slip through layers and fix impossible things. The barons sneer at butcher-boy Wolsey and blacksmith-boy Cromwell, but for Henry life is more comfortable, better managed and much more stimulating because of them.

Yet he can’t stop himself from being manoeuvred into suspiciousness. He is led by his codpiece to the ambitious, arrogant Anne, but Mantel’s characterising suggests that it is her independence of mind that brings her down - sex is just the traditional instrument used to lower a woman challenging for superiority over her mate.

The trio of queens, Katherine, Anne and Jane, are shown as considerable forces: Lucy Briers’ Katherine is magnetic, frostily regal; Lydia Leonard’s Anne casts sly sideways looks at the men around her while smiling like a cat; and Leah Brotherhood’s Jane Seymour is far from a little white mouse.

As Henry, Nathaniel Parker cuts a tall, handsome figure, yet lacks the dangerous nuclear core that seems demanded by his long early conscientiousness and then collapse into an addiction for bloodletting.

The more dramatic rebalancing caused by the staging is for the books' central character, Thomas Cromwell. Ben Miles’s healthy, wiry figure does not evoke the strange physical repellency of Cromwell remarked by his contemporaries (and by the Hans Holbein portrait), his dead-white skin and piggy eyes. By his very way of speaking, Cromwell’s function is to be bland, mediatory, unemotional, and Miles does that brilliantly - though shorn of his interior subtext in the books, it’s Cromwell who loses the most.

Yet this means gains for others in an immaculate company ensemble: Peter Jesson’s comfort-loving Wolsey, John Ramm’s joyless More, the splendidly-nosed and boorish Norfolk of Nicholas Day, the terrifying Bishop Gardiner of Matthew Pidgeon, and the amusingly Shakespearean jester turn of Pierro Niel Mee’s Christophe.

Find @ismeneb on Twitter

The beating heart is Henry’s longing for a male buddy in a desperately tense world


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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I must have been to a different play. I've only seen Wolf Hall, unfortunately I have tickets for Bring Up The Bodies next month. Of course the play can't catch the many nuances and thoughts of the character in the book, but I found the play crass, simplistic, and at moments verging on panto. Almost like The Tudors on telly, minus the naked bodies, which might have helped me not to doze off occasionally. The acting is great, the staging wooden, the writing poor, other than the occasional dialogue lifted from the book.

I totally disagree. My wife and I attended a matinee performance yesterday (1st October) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Great acting, especially from Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker, with witty dialogue and poignant moments. To call it crass is totally unreasonable. OK, there were some frivolous moments, but they just served to make it more endearing. My wife ahd read the books but I hadn't and I still managed to follow the story line easily. Quite whether the Americans will enjoy it is another matter.

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