The Theatreguide.London Review
& Bring Up The Bodies
Aldwych Theatre Summer 2014
The Royal Shakespeare Company brings from Stratford two stage adaptations by Mike Poulton of Hilary Mantel's novels set in the reign of Henry VIII, and like all successful historical plays and fictions they serve the double role of offering an easy history lesson and imagining personalities and motivations that help make history make sense.
Wolf Hall covers the last years of Henry's marriage to Katherine, and the process of annulling that marriage and allowing him to move on to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up The Bodies picks up the story a few years later when it is Anne's time to give way to Jane Seymour.
In both plays the focus is on the political and legal manoeuvring members of the court have to go through to get the King what and who he wants.
The two full-length plays are being performed in repertory and can be seen separately, though inevitably the second gains resonances from knowledge of the first.
While it may be that everyone knows enough about the basic facts (divorced, beheaded, died . . .) for there to be not much news here, Mantel's real contribution, nicely realised in Poulton's adaptation and Jeremy Herrin's production, lies in her original and convincing imagined characterisations, particularly of the man at the centre of the novels and plays, Thomas Cromwell.
Written off by many historians as a Machiavellian villain, Cromwell is the moral centre of Mantel's fictionalised world, the one man with a clear and generally admirable set of values, which do not, to be sure, keep him from advancing his own agendas and his own best interests.
Fiercely loyal, first to Archbishop Wolsey and then to the King – and, when it suits him, to Anne Boleyn – he uses his considerable organisational and political talent to serve their needs, doing so with special enthusiasm when their desires overlap with his own.
Henry wants to annul his marriage to Katherine, and Cromwell is a bit of a Protestant himself, so guiding the King toward a break with Rome achieves two goals. Anne Boleyn is openly ambitious and clearly not to be trusted, but she wants the same thing Henry does, so a temporary alliance with her helps Cromwell serve his master.
Later, in the second play, when Henry is ready to move on to Jane Seymour, Cromwell pursues the charge of adultery against Anne with added fervour and satisfaction because the men allegedly involved are the ones who brought Wolsey down.
The Cromwell of this play is never hypocritical or duplicitous. He serves his masters sincerely, and occasionally at his own expense, though he is expert enough at his job that he usually manages to serve himself at the same time, and actor Ben Miles makes this not only fascinating and attractive in a Richard III kind of way, but actually sympathetic and admirable.
To be fair, very few people in Hilary Mantel's world are hypocritical or duplicitous. In the first play Paul Jesson's Wolsey earnestly attempts to serve king and country and just isn't very good at it; he returns in the second play as a ghost offering good counsel to his protégé.
Nathaniel Parker's Henry is a simple man who makes decisions based on his appetites and then finds reasons for them. He wants to get rid of Katherine, so he convinces himself that their marriage is immoral, and soon he is sincerely guilt-filled and repentant. Having lost interest in Anne, he can only understand her original attraction in terms of witchcraft. Parker makes the man slightly ridiculous but never unsympathetic.
Even Lydia Leonard's Anne Boleyn is open in her ambition and vindictiveness, her only failing (apart from not producing a son) being that she's not as good at the game as Cromwell.
Jeremy Herrin's production reflects Cromwell's moral centrality by making him the physical centre of the play. Ben Miles is onstage almost continually, with each new scene coming to him.
Herrin may be a little less successful in keeping the large cast of characters (many of them played by actors doubling and tripling roles) clear in our minds. But if by the end of the second play you're not quite sure who those guys being executed are and exactly what they did back in the first play to make Cromwell particularly eager to get them, it hardly matters.
The broad sweep of history is clear, and the personalities invented for the principle players are believable, interesting and entertaining. And that's what historical novels and historical plays are for.
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