There will be those who aren’t familiar with Hilary Mantel and her two consecutive Man Booker prizewinning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, but I suspect not many. Similarly, there will be others, a bit like myself, who, on reading Wolf Hall, had some difficulty adjusting to the novelist’s format of setting the books in the present and in the third person, thus making it tricky to work out who is speaking and when. No dipping in and out of these highly praised tomes, charting the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. But then came Saturday and now I can’t wait to finish the first book and devour the second. Thanks for this must go to Playful Productions in coming up with the brilliant idea of adapting both novels into two stage plays, bringing the RSC on board and, following a sell out run at Stratford, transferring them to The Aldwych.
These new dramatisations by Mike Poulton, with assistance from Hilary Mantel herself cannot be faulted. The two almost three hour sessions sped by, gripped and transfixed as I was by the machinations of the court of Henry VIII. The re-telling of the 1,246 pages of print has been so, so skillfully done, thanks, in no small measure to Jeremy Herrin’s direction and the mighty Christopher Oram’s set and costume design. There is live music, dancing, and humour, whilst the actor’s move around the pared down box like grey set like chess pieces all the while portraying every character with the clarity Mantel evokes in her books.
I love the pace of the two plays. Every move, every speech economically moves the plot forward and keeps the tension taught. There is no need for a lavish set, a minimalist one, that by clever lighting becomes at once home, court, prison cell, even a boat on the Thames, wonderful period costumes and brilliant actor portrayals are enough. The whole experience reawakens our acquaintance with this part of British history and makes us rethink the personalities and motivations of the likes of Thomases Cromwell, Wolsey and More, Henry VIII and his first three wives.
The main thrust of the plot is the fact that King Henry still has no son, always a problem for the English monarchy. Poor old first wife, Katherine of Aragon, is now too old to produce another child, let alone a male one to go with her religiously resentful daughter Mary, so, what now? Enter Anne Boleyn, an intelligently ambitious and sexy young thing who promises she has what it takes to produce a male heir, but only with a ring on her finger. Be careful what you wish for springs to mind, for, before long, Henry’s eyes wander to the even younger Jane Seymour, whose family home gives the first book/play its title. Mantel’s main character,Thomas Cromwell, the lowly blacksmith’s son, by dint of his hard work, low cunning and quick humour, quickly becomes Henry’s right hand man, picking up enemies along the way. In England’s Tudor Court, the walls definitely did have ears and we quickly realise that the volatile Henry, swiftly changing from charm to alarming rage has to be handled with the softest of kid gloves. Even though we all (at least I’m assuming all) know the outcome, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies still have the ability to have us gripped.
Several of the actors take on multiple roles and it is to their credit that we are never in any doubt as to which character they are portraying. It seems rather churlish to single out any performances but because they inhabit the major roles, I will mention Ben Miles, Nathaniel Parker, Paul Jesson and Lydia Leonard. Ben Miles is Thomas Cromwell, “is” being the operative word. Charismatic, quick witted, kind, but also chilling at times, the emotional man we see within the pages of the book is also brought into focus on stage following the death of his wife, Lizzie. The production doesn’t linger on her untimely demise, but depicts it by having her vanish from the stage. Likewise Ben Miles doesn’t linger on his grief and doesn’t have to. The initial pain and grief etched on his face is palpable.
Nat Parker makes an excellent Henry VIII. Lulling us into a false sense of security with his charm and good humour when things are going his way, when they’re not his fearsome temper is even more terrifying. His Henry is a living, breathing king, vulnerable, spoilt, regal and dangerous.
Lydia Leonard is responsible for bringing Anne Boleyn to life and we’re aware of who she is and what she wants right from the word go. The play opens with a lively dance and we see her suggestively stroking Henry’s fur collar. There is no doubt as to what is on her mind and when we eventually hear her speak, we are also in no doubt that this is one intelligent, if peevish young woman.
Clad in scarlet, Paul Jesson’s Cardinal Wolsey is sublime. Hedonistic and with a wonderful sense of humour, his exchanges with Cromwell are a joy. How glad I was that his ghost kept returning, the voice of his and the other apparitions in Cromwell’s mind turned into disembodied echoes by the Sound Designer, Nick Powell.
These two plays can be watched separately but I am so glad I was lucky enough to watch both on one day. The cliff hanger ending of Wolf Hall certainly left me wanting more and, wow, the evening performance did not disappoint. Please hurry up and finish The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel. I can’t wait to see how you complete your trilogy.