This is a combined review of 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies'
Back in Tudor times, the good yeomen of England would probably have burned writer Mike Poulton as a witch for pulling off the superhuman feat of turning Hilary Mantel’s titanic historical fiction novels 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies' into a pair of manageable stage plays. In our more enlightened era, I just hope he gets all the credit he deserves for the RSC’s triumphant brace of plays set in the fractious court of Henry VIII.
Each book is well over 600 pages long, and the sprawling ‘Wolf Hall’ has a ‘main’ plot in only the loosest sense. Yet with director Jeremy Herrin’s help, Poulton makes Mantel’s mass of subplots and secondary characters sing. The result is a brooding but snappy dance of microscenes and short vignettes in which Poulton unerringly pulls out the wittiest and most important bits of each novel, delicately cutting or consolidating everything else.
Even so, there’s too much story to allow for such conventions as scenery changes – Christopher Oram’s fixed set is a vast concrete-and-steel box with a huge cross at the back, an imposingly impressionist rendering of Henry’s troubled kingdom.
Omnipresent but never flashy is Ben Miles as Machiavellian politician Thomas Cromwell. It is a stupendous, steely turn that holds both plays together like a scaffold, but it’s also disarmingly down-to-earth. Where in Mantel’s writing there’s a temptation to see Cromwell as infallible in his rise from low birth to Henry’s most powerful servant, Miles makes him more human and more intriguing. Darkly handsome but a mass of nervous tics – constantly scanning the room, smirkingly turning away from the person he’s speaking to – Miles’s Cromwell is a gambler, whose initial overtures to Henry are born not of confidence but nothing-to-lose desperation.
In the books, Cromwell’s motives can seem inscrutable, but with the story condensed into six hours, it’s richly rewarding to watch his passions unfurl and finally combust at the climax of ‘Bring Up the Bodies’.
Miles is the looming constant, but he allows others into the foreground, notably the excellent Nathaniel Parker as terrifying manchild Henry, Lydia Leonard’s tantalisingly ambiguous Anne Boleyn and Leah Brotherhead’s savant-like Jane Seymour.
The two plays do stand alone – indeed, ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ probably works a tad better thanks to a more digestible plot – but the build and momentum is very much that of one lengthy show. If you have a passing interest, do yourself a favour: book the day off and see both together, so you can journey all the way into this heart of English darkness.