NANCY HEATH reviews the stage adaption of ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’
Going to a Matinee always generates a different feeling than an evening show, however, with a running time of nearly six hours, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker winning ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ needs to straddle both performance slots.
Shown in subsequent performances in the Aldwych theatre, after their transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon in May, these two historical dramas make up the first two thirds of Mantel’s novelisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s “most loyal and trusted servant”. The final instalment of the trilogy is set to come to print next year and will hopefully be followed by a dramatic adaptation of its own (fingers tightly crossed). Told on a minimalist stage, with sharp changes in lighting used to snap between short scenes, it is the characters who make the two plays dense and captivating, from its meek Thames-side beginnings up to the lavish, haunting execution of England’s Queen.
The focal character of these plays is the complex Cromwell, but lovers of the original material need not fear as Ben Miles fully encapsulates the part and transports him from page to stage. Cromwell leads the audience through the murky political landscape of sixteenth century England, as he ascends from a blacksmith’s son in Putney to the right-hand man of King Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker).
Both plays open with a slightly unexpected courtly dance set to period-appropriate music. As a stage-setter it is an atmospheric opening, reminiscent of Shakespearean comedies at the Globe and is a quick way to introduce characters who would not be seen for an hour otherwise. Suddenly, the stage is York Palace, and we are being presided on by the lavish Cardinal Wolsey. Scene changes are creative and clear despite their minimalism: a single light change transports you to the other side of the Thames, the austerity of which can be poignantly moving. At one truly impressive moment, the death of three characters is staged in one scene transition to brutal but oddly beautiful effect as a silhouetted casket is sprinkled with snow. The simplicity of the show’s staging compounds this huge story and makes it heavily emotional.
There was an initial worry that the large of characters and the breadth of content could become confusing, especially as over a third of the characters are called Thomas, Henry or Mary. Fortuitously, this worry was quickly dispersed as the audience is kept fully informed. Between the snappy, darkly comic dialogue and side-long looks between Cromwell and his advisor Rafe (Joshua Silver), audiences manage to hold dramatic irony over most of the characters, knowing events long before they do. Poulton’s brilliant adaptation, along with Jeremy Herrin’s knowledgeable directing, set events perfectly from Cromwell’s point of view allowing you to effortlessly understand everything Cromwell knows. Fortunately for us, Thomas Cromwell was the most informed man in all of England at this time.
At the interval, people who an hour ago knew nothing beyond Henry VIII’s infamous wives are waxing lyrical about the political instability between Gardiner and Cranmer in their opposing political roles: a tale of this magnitude, with nearly 1100 pages of source material, is magnificent in its ability to still translate small details.
Another pillar which holds these shows high above their contemporaries in theatre is the music. The orchestral pit rightfully gained one of the strongest applauses at the end of the night. The near-constant underscore is almost unnoticeable yet continually progressing the narrative.
Enough cannot be said in merit of this cast: Nathaniel Parker’s Henry is oddly endearing and terrifying in equal parts. Tender scenes where he seems to be the faulted lover bring a new edge to the Henry VIII we all know and hate from our childhood. Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) is amazing in her single-minded desires and Protestant piety and even Paul Jesson’s excessive, unscrupulous Wolsey generates sympathy. Ben Miles himself is somewhat unbelievable in his ability to stay on stage nearly constantly and so minutely in character.
At the end of both performances I experienced a rare occurrence. As the actors dropped character for their bows, even seasoned theatregoers were palpably shocked as we were taken from a world which had swallowed us whole. The intensive narrative of these shows cannot be understated, interloping audiences into a world where they sit amongst events rather than witness to them.
Poulton’s ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’ are a brilliant homage to Mantel—the only living author with a portrait in the British Library. We must wish both plays luck on their Broadway transfer next year. But for now we shall simply wait for the trilogy’s concluding chapter, ‘The Mirror and the Glass’, and its own dramatic debut so we can indulge in a nine hour Mantel Marathon from the box seats of Aldwych theatre.
All photographs by Keith Pattison