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There are a lot of naked flames here amid the timber structure of the Swan Theatre, and a great deal of combustible-looking Tudor period costume as well. But these two plays set in the era of Henry VIII are unlikely to bring the house down as Shakespeare’s corresponding drama did at the original Globe Theatre in 1613, by burning it to the ground. These are hot tickets in the modern sense of the word.
Hilary Mantel’s two multi-prize-winning historical novels (her projected trilogy is yet to be completed) are, in some respects, naturals for stage adaptation. Their events – Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and marriage of Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, along with the trial and execution of Anne and several of her court faction to make way for Jane Seymour in Bring Up The Bodies – are portrayed largely through dialogue. The central portrait of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from lowly origins as a blacksmith’s son in Putney to become Cardinal Wolsey’s right-hand man and then his successor as Henry’s principal fixer in both these affairs, emerges naturally in the novels through his own utterances, or occasionally through thoughts expressed in the same direct idiom and so easily turned into speech onstage.
Yet this is a mixed blessing, for there is far too much usable material; it needs rigorous yet also delicate pruning. Mike Poulton’s adaptations are masterly. He excises a number of major characters and aspects, tweaks others to enable them to carry more of the burden and, overall, distils and drives matters such that the first handful of scenes bang-bang-bang through to establish all the crucial issues (Wolsey’s power, the royal divorce, even the controversy over an English-language Bible) in short order, yet seemingly naturally.
Poulton and director Jeremy Herrin are unafraid to allow visual moments to make an impact on their own dramatic terms without including the novels’ explanation. When Cromwell wards off a furious king with a bizarre gesture, readers of the novels know it as originating in his smithying apprenticeship but viewers without that knowledge lose nothing of its curious hieratic power.
Probably the most grievous loss in these stage adaptations is the almost complete absence of Cromwell’s domestic life in general and the deaths from fever of his wife and daughters in particular. (The daughters do not even appear onstage.) Still, a moment of beautiful, understated eloquence occurs early in Bring Up The Bodies: after Cromwell has had a detailed argument with the ghosts of Wolsey and Sir Thomas More, the shade of his beloved Lizzie crosses the stage in silence, pausing matter-of-factly to pick some fluff from his robe.
Ben Miles is probably too much the handsome gentleman to be a perfect Cromwell (look at the ferret-faced bruiser in the Holbein portrait) but, then again, this never claims to be objective history; it is Cromwell’s version, blunt but not blatantly self-serving, a corrective to other artistic versions such as A Man For All Seasons. In contrast to Robert Bolt’s saintly Thomas More in that play, John Ramm here is sanctimoniously hectoring. Lydia Leonard is given little opportunity to show us Anne Boleyn the seductress (she kept Henry hanging on for seven years, after all), but is strong on her ambition and imperious flightiness.
Nathaniel Parker’s Henry is unexpectedly susceptible but clearly, in Wolsey’s words, “always believes what he says . . . at the time he’s saying it”. Among the rest of the cast, Paul Jesson is an authoritative yet often wry Wolsey, and Lucy Briers doubles as an unyielding Catherine and the maliciously gossip-mongering Lady Rochford.
The only appreciable flaw in this diptych is that it is inescapably a diptych. At first it may seem only that the “join” between the two plays is a little ragged (despite the smart addition, absent from the novel and even the published script, of Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet “Whoso List To Hunt”; the courtier and poet Wyatt is a suitor of Anne’s who escapes prosecution and punishment). As matters progress, though, it becomes increasingly apparent that, however assiduously Poulton and Herrin strive to make each part autonomous, they are stymied by what is otherwise one of the dramas’ greatest strengths. For the more graphically we see that Cromwell’s persecution of Anne’s alleged lovers in Bring up the Bodies is revenge for theirs of his former master Wolsey in Wolf Hall, the more vital it becomes to see both plays for the full picture, however deftly drawn it is. But I suspect that few will be likely to opt for only one of the plays in any case. Taken together, they serve as an inspiring contemporary analogue of Shakespearean history plays at their best – some way better than his own Henry VIII.