An ambitious world premiere is being presented at The Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, two parts of her planned three book series on the life of Henry VIII's controversial minister Thomas Cromwell would be a challenge for any adaptation to drama. The BBC plans a miniseries starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell to be broadcast in 2015. To take these two 500 plus page densely detailed novels and distill them down to two 2 hour and 45 minute dramas takes a steady hand. Mike Poulton, who previously dramatized the entirety of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales for the RSC proves the right dramatist for the job. Under the well-crafted direction of Jeremy Herrin in the intimate Swan Theater, the company of 21 actors brings this juicy tale of the rise to power of the commoner from Putney to first minister of the realm to vibrant life.
Wolf Hall the novel covers roughly 35 years from Thomas Cromwell's boyhood as the son of the violent Walter Cromwell, blacksmith and brewer in Putney, through the sketchy years he spent abroad possibly as a soldier and working for merchants and bankers in Italy and the Low Countries. It then tells of his return to London, his marriage and children, his work in the mercantile and legal fields, election to Parliament and his coming to the attention of King Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell's eventual joining of Wolsey's staff. Wolf Hall, the play cuts to the meat of the drama, starting with Cromwell firmly established as a trusted servant of Wolsey at the beginning of Henry VIII's "Great Matter," what would lead to his protracted attempt to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn and the subsequent creation of the Church of England in the process.
Fear not, fans of Mantel's novels, while much of the meticulous detail has to be jettisoned for the drama to shape its focus, a lot of the background details survive, whether in Cromwell guilelessly admitting his humble and rough origins to the members of the nobility who mock him for them, to the edge of violence he must at times keep in check. Cromwell's wife and son remain as characters, the daughters spoken of fondly with imagery that will be very familiar to readers of Mantel's book.
So, yes, the focus of Wolf Hall the play is that famous focal point of most of the drama and historic fiction on the lives of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. All the great characters are present, but what makes this play and the novel it is based upon unique is in its perspective. We meet Henry VIII and Queen Katherine and Anne Boleyn, but the focus is not on them and the famous trial at Blackfriars remains offstage. We see the events as they impact Thomas Cromwell and his master, Cardinal Wolsey. It is Wolsey's fall from grace and witnessing the disgrace of his beloved master and friend that forever colors Cromwell as he latches himself to the royal household and makes himself indispensable as he succeeds in giving the King what he desires most and where Wolsey had failed. Yet, as history knows, the tale did not end happily with Anne Boleyn giving the King the male heir he craves. Wolf Hall ends with the King unhappy again readying for the summer progress of 1535 his eye beginning to wander towards Jane Seymour.
Bring Up The Bodies picks up the story during that progress as the King visits the actual Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family. It then spirals into an intense chilling evening of theater as everything that Anne Boleyn and her faction gained by her being crowned Queen is lost in a matter of 9 months time. It is a story of killed or be killed as the Queen and Cromwell, whom she sees as her servant that she can destroy become locked into a battle in which only one can survive. It leads to revenge on those whom Cromwell holds responsible for the humiliation of his former master Wolsey and the cementing of Thomas Cromwell, blacksmith's son, as the first minister of the realm and a peer as Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon. It is horrifying in the way that words spoken in jest and with the intent of the game of courtly love our twisted into evidence of carnal wrongdoing with the Queen. Love turns to ashen hate. Blood freely flows and the scavengers descend to pick the juiciest spoils just as the executioners strip the headless bodies of their clothes in payment for their services.
The Swan Theatre proves an excellent venue for these plays. It is intimate with the audience on three sides, close enough to eavesdrop on the machinations of the Tudor court. Designed by Christopher Oram, the plays are starkly staged, only a few pieces of furniture and props are needed to suggest locations whether the humble home of Cromwell or a barge on the river Thames. Many in the cast of 21 portray multiple roles. While the stunning Tudor costumes and wigs assist, the actors do much with physicality and voice to bring each character to life.
The entire company is outstanding. Joshua James as Rafe Sadler, Cromwell's chief clerk and Pierro Niel Mee as Christophe, Cromwell's hired thug make excellent henchmen. Lucy Briers is a regally haughty Queen Katherine and a sniveling, bitter eavesdropper as Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford. Leah Brotherhood is guileless as the honest, bewildered Jane Seymour who uneasily finds herself England's Queen. Lydia Leonard is strong, passionate and vengeful as Queen Anne Boleyn.
Nathaniel Parker is a multi-faceted King Henry VIII showing the growth of the lion learning his power unleashing it on those most close to him to clear the path to gaining what he desires. Yet, there are moments of tender vulnerability in Parker's King that compels the audience to occasionally grant him compassion and pity for his circumstances. Lest you completely sympathize with King Henry Mr. Parker is the centerpiece of the most chilling scene in Bring Up The Bodies. Nearly wordless the King sits at a table and signs individually each death warrant quickly placed by Cromwell and the King's signature swiftly sanded and set by Rafe Sadler. The scene is methodical yet shows the ruthless nature of the lion in power.
Ben Miles has his work cut out for him as he is rarely not on stage during the entire 5 hour and 30 minute running time of the combined plays. His Thomas Cromwell is charming and charismatic and can turn on a pinhead into a cold, calculating unmoved monster if it gets his King what his King desires. Only during Bring Up The Bodies do you see Thomas Cromwell really demand the reward of a peerage for the years of being the King's legal bully. Yet, what makes Mr. Mile's Cromwell so complex is that we see the turmoil of his entire life, from the loss of Wolsey to the loss of his wife and daughters that has colored and shaped the man he has become. He stands triumphant at the end of Bring Up The Bodies, Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon, at the height of his power, bathed in a cold unflattering light, leaving the audience to ponder when will it become his turn to fall.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies adapted by Mike Poulton from the novels by Hilary Mantel are being presented at The Swan Theatre by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon through the 28th and 29th of March, 2014. The productions are sold out, but returns may be available. For information on any return tickets please visit the Royal Shakespeare Company box office. For information on the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions, exhibitions and other activities please visit their website rsc.org.uk