Stratford on Avon
Until 29th March
RICHARD LUTZ takes in the long awaited theatrical double-header of Tudor shenanigans.
Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Tudor England, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are massively popular. She won every award going for this detailed story of intrigue and duplicity during the reign of Henry VIII.
But how do you translate about 900 pages of internal monologue (inside the head of chief court manipulator Thomas Cromwell) onto the stage? It is a great, if demanding, read. But is it a good night out?
Leave it to the RSC to give it a go.
Both of the novels are now on stage at Stratford’s Swan Theatre and I would think ultimately heading for London just in time, I would add, for a separate BBC broadcast based on the same Mantel books. We are going to get a lot of Tudor intrigue stuffed down our throats in other words within the next 12 months. After all, if tv, the West End and probably Broadway beckon, can the movies, graphic novels, twitter feeds and T-shirts be far behind?
Overall, it is right that the RSC should attempt this production first. It is a Shakespearean profile of raw politics, murderous struggles and how an undefinable warmth of the soul can be changed and corrupted by the chase for power.
The plays, and I saw them both in one day, do hold its up under the weight of the novels. It is good theatre and the audience doesn’t feel overly confused by an endless parade of half known historical figures or arcane bits of late medieval fact.
It is a surprisingly easy to follow the plot despite 500 years of distance and the numerous changes in court conflict.
Yes, the vivd touch of Hilary Mantel’s writing is missing. After all, it is a play. But not her sense of dialogue, her ability to combine light banter with heavyweight railings against the night and, with the help of playwright Mike Poulton, the ability to force this story forward.
In other words, the power of the word does translate to the power of the stage.
Ben Miles, playing Cromwell, carries the day (and evening) as he portrays a man slowly climbing the greasy pole of success, first under the avuncular and worldly Cardinal Wolsey and then under a Henry V!!! who uses every trick in the book to kick out one royal wife in order to marry another…and then another.
Miles’ Cromwell is a a man first seen enjoying the court and church intrigue around him but who is fundamentally softened by the warmth of a family. But his wife and two little girls die in the stewpot of 16th century London and slowly, as he gains political muscle and the trust of a manic king, he hardens, his decisions get tougher and he stops questioning the morality of bloody intrigue and simply becomes a royal bagman to sort out intractable problems rather than query them.
This is the nub of the two plays: who does Cromwell become? The first play, Wolf Hall, is peppered with sneering court royals asking him, an upstart prole from the street, the same question over and over again: ”Just who are you?’
This echoes through the first play as Anne Boleyn becomes queen. it follows him, hounds him, into the second play, Bring Up The Bodies, as he fails to question the demented world around him. Only the ghost of his long lost wife, silently gliding past him and fondly, simply touching his elbow, rocks him for a poignant moment in this tough hard universe of royal chicanery.
Cromwell, in a sense, is a man who gains the world, controls the world, but loses his soul. He is a masterful dogsbody for the king’s whims, a water-carrier for a quixotic ruler who is ordered to tie up all the nasty loose ends. Unfortunately, this results in murder, frame-ups and thuggery. People die because Cromwell is so good at not questioning.
He’s simply doing his job well. He’s an efficient Tudor hired gun.
So, after six hours of court plotting and the ruination of two queens, Cromwell can toast his own good health- a knowingly ironic gesture because he has done what had to be done but lost so much of his humanity.
Besides Miles, there are strong performances from Nathaniel Parker as Henry, all muscle and ruffles and angsty paranoia; Paul Jesson as an ageing and crafty Cardinal Wolsey; and, a tour de force effort from Lydia Leonard as the scheming screaming hard-as-nails Anne Boleyn.
Director Jeremy Herrin lets the words and characters light up a simple stage, almost devoid of the clutter of decoration as we follow the ex blacksmith/ ex soldier/ ex silk merchant Thomas Cromwell plot his way through the byzantine history of Henry VIII’s courtly nightmare.
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