Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning duo Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies spun the well-trodden story of Henry VIII’s reign round so it became his righthand man, Thomas Cromwell’s tale.
Adapted for the stage, these hefty tomes have been, like many of Cromwell’s enemies, nimbly, if ruthlessly, cut down to size. Wolf Hall begins with Henry’s mumblings of discontentment with his first wife – the widow of his elder brother Arthur – Catherine of Aragon. By this time he’s captivated with the intoxicating Anne Boleyn. Cromwell with his quick brain and desire for progress (particularly religious), steps up before the King at just the right – or wrong for those who ended up on the scaffold – time. Together they change the course of English history for ever and Cromwell’s infamy is secured.
One of the joys of Wolf Hall (and again in Bring Up The Bodies) is that Mantel takes a story we presume to know so well, seizing it back from the history books and injecting it with soul and humanity. The period in history that Wolf Hall covers is as much a tale about paperwork and theological discussion as it is about love and reform. Mantel gives this tale an emotional heart by creating a Cromwell that was sympathetic, even likeable. It was essential then that the stage Thomas Cromwell was as engaging as the one of the page, and Ben Miles is a hugely captivating and convincing Cromwell. Despite all his learning, Latin and new found role as the King’s BFF, there remains traces of the accent of a butcher’s son and an unrefined ease about him, constantly cracking jokes, some of them dangerously inappropriate (“I’m surprised he can find the”’ he says to Mary Boleyn when she tells him of Anne allowing Henry to touch her breasts).
Cromwell’s female family members are as much victims of Mike Poulton’s adaptation as the sweating disease. We meet his wife Lizzie only briefly, his daughters only alluded to after their death. Jeremy Herrin’s pacey direction has little time for emotion with so much history to pack in. While the novel was so fluid that there were time you didn’t know where you’d drifted to, the play is a series of staccato pieces. While much of the heart that Mantel put into her novel is lost, what Poulton and the actors do very well (notably Paul Jesson as an excellent Cardinal Wolsey) is extract the humour from Mantel’s novels. A woman on the bus on the way home thought it was a “a bit too Blackadder-ish which is rather overstretching just how funny it was, but certainly proves the point that this was no po-face Tudor history lesson.
Wolf Hall was good, but Bring Up the Bodies is better. Paperwork dispensed with, the action begins. Cromwell by this point is secure, even pompous in his exalted position. His self-assurance is dented by Henry’s jousting accident that permanently injures the King and sends a jolt through England’s court. Legend has it that Henry died for several minutes, enough to give the problem of succession momentum.
BUTB is better paced, less frantic than Wolf Hall. Plus there’s less talk of monasteries and more beheading. Nathaniel Parker is an excellent, more considered Henry, less lascivious than recent TV Harry 8s (hello Jonathan Rhys Myers). He’s also less ginger and not as cartoonly fat, although he’s still an oaf: stupid, self-obsessed, totally unwilling to take responsibility for anything, even killing his own wife. Parker’s less rambunctious performance only further exposes Henry’s gruesomeness as he reminds us he was a man as well as a tyrannical king.
Theatre can be gut-wrenchingly emotional, even life-changing, and sometimes it’s just brilliant storytelling. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are just that, engrossing theatre with impressive, compelling performances that pull you into brilliant story. And props too to the live orchestra who added menacing drama and tension without being intrusive.
by Suzanne Elliott
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies run until 4 October at the Aldwych Theatre. For for information and tickets visit www.aldwychtheatre.com.