(For Material Witness review of RSC's Wolf Hall click here)
The necessity of cutting Hilary Mantel’s two magnificent – but mammoth – novels of Tudor politics into a mere six hours of stage time dictated that playing the role of the near ever-present Thomas Cromwell was always likely to be demanding.
Mike Poulton’s brilliant adaptation essentially reduces Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies to an intense series of critical scenes, carefully chosen to develop the story line and build characters. In this enterprise, barely a moment is wasted and at therefore at times Ben Miles as Cromwell has time merely to march two-thirds of the way off the stage before sharply turning about and engaging in the next essential business of serving his fickle and demanding king.
Only during Bring Up the Bodies did I really come to appreciate the extraordinary energy of the performances delivered by an outstanding cast, and by Miles and Lydia Leonard – playing Anne Boleyn – in particular.
In the intervening 21 hours since I had left the Swan Theatre – surely the perfect venue for this production – I had had a good night’s sleep and done little of anything useful, and the emotion and intensity of the two shows had left me exhausted! The RSC company by contrast had delivered a matinee and somehow returned to the stage to give a bravura performance that outstripped the brilliant first part.
Bring Up the Bodies is darker and more threatening than Wolf Hall. As Cromwell continues his ascent to the very pinnacle of the King’s court and Anne her journey from throne to chopping block, every character from the King down betray increasing urgency, desperation and vulnerability. The courtiers in particular understand the precariousness of their positions, indeed of their very lives.
Director Jeremy Herrin skillfully conjures the political claustrophobia of the court with the lighting of the set and the sparing use of props. By the time Anne Boleyn and her five convicted lovers are sent to their untimely ends there is a palpable sense of despair and catastrophic upheaval about the court. Henry’s obscenely swift marriage to Jane Seymour compounds this, presaging as it does further misery and disaster to follow.
And throughout it all there is Thomas Cromwell, delivering justice for his lost Wolsey, engineering another wife for Nathaniel Parker’s terrific Henry, bestowing riches upon his family at Austin Friars and by turns menacing and charming every individual who crosses his path. Ben Miles brilliantly captures the stealthy but decisive change in Cromwell, who is easy to admire and like in Wolf Hall, but whose corruption by power leaves him a man to be feared and distrusted by the time he delivers Anne to the Frenchman’s axe.
I have never been as rapt in a theatre as I was during these two plays. Poulton and Mantel – who was cheered to the rafters at the end of the performance – have done the seemingly impossible and transformed two brilliant but challenging novels into utterly compelling drama that will surely be showered with awards.