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‘The Mirror and The Light’ review

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Mirror and the Light, Gielgud Theatre, 2021
Photo by Marc BrennerBen Miles (Thomas Cromwell)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Thrilling stage finale to Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy

It took Hilary Mantel eight years to write ‘The Mirror and the Light’, the final instalment of her towering ‘Wolf Hall’ trilogy of novels about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief fixer, who rose from poverty to become one of the most powerful men in English history. But it’s taken barely a year for the 900-plus page novel to hit the stage. 

A clue to both of these timings probably lies in the fact that while the first two novels, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, were adapted for stage by Mike Poulton in 2014, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ comes courtesy of… Hilary Mantel, writing with Ben Miles, who has played Cromwell throughout Jeremy Herrin’s RSC stage productions, and also narrates the audiobooks.

Poulton did a fine job, but the advantages of having the author at the helm (plus the perspective of the guy who had to read the 38-hour-long audiobook) are immediately apparent here. The book followed on directly from its predecessor, beginning in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, and working forward to Cromwell’s own demise at the assent of his capricious monarch (Nathaniel Parker). Hare, Mantel/Miles feel empowered to tear up the chronology: it begins near the end, with Cromwell admitted to the Tower of London on charges of treason and heresy, squaring up to his enemies led by Nicholas Woodeson’s flinty Norfolk.

Before too long, it flashes back, and thereafter stays chronological. But the tinkering is a smart theatrical move, that makes the story self-contained and accessible. Nobody has seen ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ for seven years, so far better to give ‘The Mirror…’ its own structure than graft it on to its predecessor. Perhaps more importantly for what Mantel/Miles are trying to achieve, it gets the issue of Cromwell’s demise out of the way early doors. This is absolutely not a weepie tragedy, but a fast, often very funny political thriller.

‘There’s the sense of a kingdom galloping breathlessly out of control’

The title is a quote from Cromwell, now risen to a dizzying position of power and wealth, as he flatters the man who has given him that power and wealth, Parker’s Henry. And perhaps even more so than its predecessors, this is a story about Cromwell trying to negotiate Henry’s capricious whims whilst attempting to nudge the nation in the direction he thinks best. 

Near enough 20 times shorter than the audiobook, it is effectively the greatest hits of the plot, done at speed. So we get an awful lot of Henry’s tortured love life: his brief, happy marriage to Olivia Marcus’s sweet, dopey Jane Seymour; his briefer, much less happy marriage to Rosanna Adams’s pretty but cold Anna of Cleves. There’s a Cromwell-brokered reconciliation with the king’s fanatical daughter, Mary (Melissa Allan). And, of course, there’s the fallout from Henry’s schism with the church and dissolution of the monasteries, who leads to a revolt in the North.

But although Herrin’s production zips through all this in a relatively short space of time, it never feels perfunctory. In fact by compacting all these events together, the play benefits from the sustained sense of a kingdom galloping breathlessly out of control, as a group of deeply cynical nobles – some clearly wildly underqualified to run a country – shamelessly make it up as they go along in response to the king’s demands and their wildfire consequences. And the staccato, frequently hilarious dialogue really sings, pinging forward with a panache that might make Aaron Sorkin look wordy.

It’s worth saying that while it’s absolutely not a parable about Brexit, ‘The Mirror and the Light’ lands differently politically than the first two plays did back in idyllic old 2014. The idea of self-interested English politicians tearing up the status quo without much idea of what they’re doing has a clear resonance. But perhaps the best lesson from it is that history is basically cyclical and Brexit probably isn’t even in the top five maddest things the English have ever attempted.

The whole endeavour would be a lot less good without its two returning leads. Parker is brilliant as a self-absorbed manchild who would be comical if he wasn’t so dangerous. Now huge and limping, there is a poignancy to the ebbing away of his boyish vigour and his mounting sense of mortality. But his coping mechanism for this is to retreat behind his overwhelming powers, to crush people. It is not pretty.

As for Miles’s Cromwell, he is wondrous, a shifty political operator always looking over his shoulder, scanning the room, working the angles, charming but nakedly calculating. He isn’t greedy in the traditional sense, but everything is a transaction to him. And yet he is increasingly haunted by the ghosts of the friends he tried and failed to save, notably his mentor, Cardinal Wolsely (Tony Turner). He begins to run out of road: not just in falling out with Henry, but in miscalculations in his own private life, and his rattled anger at the encroachment of his enemies. He’s smooth to the end, praising the king even at his own execution. But even he is finally out of his depth.

When the end comes, it comes quickly, and the show’s big fault is clearly that it doesn’t have much heft to its climax: Cromwell’s death is heavily foreshadowed, and Mantel/Miles have no interest in giving us a big sobbing send-off. Still, it’s in keeping with the rampant pragmatism of Miles’s take on the man, a perfectly apt, maybe even slightly iconoclastic to end a masterful two-and-a-half-hours of thrilling political theatre.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£17.50-£127.50. Runs 2hr 30min
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