A huge cross dominates the otherwise barren set for the RSC’s magnificent staging of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (first seen in Stratford-upon-Avon). Cut into the backstage wall, it’s ever present, sometimes lit from behind to suggest a realm of light beyond the partition. It’s a constant reminder that, while the drama is driven by the worldly power struggles and desires at Henry VIII’s court, it is intensified by the promise or threat of the hereafter. Indeed, those who have passed over often return here: Thomas Cromwell is haunted by his wife and his early employer Cardinal Wolsey. The illuminated cross and ghostly revenants are simple, brilliant tactics, typical of Jeremy Herrin’s nimble, fluid and enthralling staging, that convey the reach of Hilary Mantel’s great novels, as well as the rough and tumble.
And rough and tumble there is aplenty. The two plays, crafted by Mike Poulton with Mantel, broadly trace the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, as seen through the eyes of Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who became the king’s chief fixer. The texts are sleek, vigorous and muscular, presenting a dark world studded with pearls of humour. What you lose is the novels’ evocative descriptions of the texture of daily routine. What you gain is a keen, tactile sense of the brevity of life in Tudor England and a great relish for character.
The excellent RSC ensemble rise to this, creating crisply defined characters with a few strokes. Here’s Norfolk, blustering and bombastic (Nicholas Day); Cardinal Wolsey, worldly and mordantly funny (Paul Jesson); and a host of swaggering, foppish youth. They convey a bustling, treacherous world in which people grapple for status and security. The question “who are you?” often hurled at Cromwell, in fact applies to everyone.
Cromwell is, in answer to that question, the man best fitted to survive in this murky potage. Ben Miles, ever present, is superb in the role: quiet, sharp and observant; coolly brutal yet fiercely loyal. But Miles, with just a shift in stance or expression, also conveys his own violent history and personal grief. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII begins with vestiges of the charismatic, youthful monarch, but gradually sours before our eyes. His darkening mood slowly alters the temperature on stage, something most characters, including Lydia Leonard’s supple, shrewd Anne Boleyn, realise too late. But Parker also suggests that this Henry (like many a Shakespearean king) is in fact plagued by his conscience. In this vivid, subtle staging, that huge cross looms over him too.