Theatre Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, Aldwych Theatre

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and John Ramm as Thomas More in Wolf Hall. Photographer Keith Pattison.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and John Ramm as Thomas More in Wolf Hall. Photographer Keith Pattison.

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.

Book Review: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

The soap opera life of Henry VIII has been told so many times in film, novels and campy TV series that you could argue we don’t need another historical novel to rake over the ashes of the heroes and victims of this bloody age.

But Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies, the second novel dramatising the rise and, although we’re not there yet, the fall, of Henry’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, raises Queen Anne and the other Tudor ghosts from the ground in such exquisite style that it renders so much that’s gone before it ordinary. I guzzled up the 600+ page novel, reading well into the small hours a story I’ve heard told in far less bewitching ways a hundred times before.

The novel begins at Wolf Hall, the soon-to-be royal cohorts the Seymours’ house, with Cromwell flying his falcons, named after his daughters and wife. It’s a disorientating opener as Grace, Lizzie and Anne, as those of us who read Wolf Hall or read Mantel’s handy ‘Cast of Characters’ know, are long dead, making their resurrected names momentarily distracting and ghostly. Surely grounded Cromwell hasn’t started seeing ghosts? But this opaque paragraph aside, it’s not Mantel’s desire to bamboozle you, she’s a writer of great clarity and simplicity once the historical fog clears. There’s been much made of her writing in the present tense and her (over?) use of the third person pronoun, but there’s a beautiful fluidity to her style that can go unnoticed until you’re ensconced in Mantel’s Tudor England. (I once joined a book group and on the first meeting some members were discussing Wolf Hall – a book they’d read a few months before – and one of the book clubbers dismissed it as ‘full of words and literature’. I am no longer a member of that book club).

The use of the present tense raises the novel from the past, giving a pace and urgency to a five hundred year old tale. Thomas Cromwell’s life and the Tudor age is brought vividly to life by the living nature of the present tense and the author’s deliberate use of non-historic language – this is not a pastiche of olden times, you won’t find a ye olde shoppe in Mantel’s 16th century. Mantel’s characters aren’t a strange race from the foreign land of the past, they are people who talk and think like us; they tell jokes (this novel is often very amusing); they’re ironic “Ah, do you see, I am an Englishwoman now! I know how to say the opposite of what I mean”, says the once Spanish Lady Willoughby; they hate paperwork and love sport; they nod off at the dinner table after too much wine. In short, they aren’t monsters hell-bent on sending everyone who disagrees with them to the Tower. Their very real emotions pulse through and off the page – the ending is of course  no surprise, as much as this is a work of fiction Mantel’s not about to let Boleyn walk off into the sunshine with grumpy old Henry and his gammy leg. But despite the restriction of the inevitable ending, Mantel builds the tension to such an extent that my heart from beating furiously as Anne’s fate loomed over the novel.

Bring Up The Bodies, for all the gory connotations of the titles, is remarkably unbloody (“bring up the bodies” refers to prisoners at the Tower of London being brought up for their trial). The four men, Francis Weston, Henry Norris, George Boleyn and Mark Smeaton are not tortured (although Smeaton has an uncomfortable night with a pair of fairy wings in ‘Christmas’); the out-going queen is treated with respect in the chambers she spent the night before her coronation. This was the only part of the novel that didn’t quite ring true for me. Maybe I’ve been brainwashed by textbooks and The Tudors, but I was unconvinced by the rather modern leniency and compassion that the men were shown. Perhaps Mantel has become a little too close to her Cromwell to allow him to start ordering potentially innocent men to the rack?

For this isn’t a story of the downfall of Anne Boleyn, this is the re-telling of the much maligned Thomas Cromwell, a man who’s gone down in history as a ambitious, cruel man who would lop anyone’s head off on his way to the top. But Mantel’s Cromwell is a man of even temper, of great intelligence. He’s capable of kindness and is so loyal to his friends that he would, Mantel hints, seek bloody revenge for any wrong-doings to them (the four convicted men who fell with the queen were all players in a parody of Cromwell’s great mentor Wolsey after the cardinal was driven to an early grave. We are not encouraged to think this is a coincidence). He’s benevolent and generous; his contempt for those higher born than him who scoff and mock the blacksmith’s son is only barely concealed – although concealed, even to himself, it is. Mantel’s Cromwell is an honest man amongst a court of ignorant, greedy nobles. This is a man who wants to push through a Poor Law that is obstructed by a room full of titled idiots; who takes in begging jesters and undermines Lords. He’s a class warrior who is merely carrying out his king’s orders for the good of monarch and the nation. I am already lamenting his demise…

Suzanne Elliott