A complex Cromwell thrills in Tudor epics

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell

Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies @ Aldwych Theatre, London

5 Stars

IF you haven’t been living in the Antarctic for the last eight years or so, l you’ll be aware of the monster success of Hilary Mantel’s books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – both Booker Prize winners, part of the author’s projected trilogy about Henry VIII’s ‘fixer’, Thomas Cromwell.

The RSC’s stage adaptations of both (over five and a half hours of stage time) – now in the West End in a run that’s already broken box office records – are wonderfully dark and comic, fairly faithful reductions of those texts which bring the beauty of the Machiavellian wheeling and dealing into sharp focus (“Man”, says the astute Cromwell, “is wolf to man”).

That dramatist Mike Poulton and director Jeremy Herrin manage, in addition to reduce the key plots and relationships (there are around 70 characters, with more than a few Thomas’s) into bite-sized understandable scenes without diminishing their power is quite something.

Ben Miles steals the show as Thomas Cromwell. As Henry VIII who, with the help of old Cromwell separates from Rome and creates his own church, told his right-hand man: “You’re as cunning as a band of snakes, but do not direct your venom at me.”

Miles portrays that knowing, working-class, cunning enigma with zeal, not afraid to reveal the cutthroat within.

But of course the story we’re dealing with is gripping stuff, with the King’s multiple wives, action under the sheets and his love of beheadings and the fact that it’s been stripped down further from Mantel’s dynamic and economic telling, one imagines, makes it even more watchable.

Wolf Hall sets the scene as Katherine of Aragon exits and Anne Boleyn enters, though by the end Anne’s future too hangs in the balance, Jane Seymour offered up by Cromwell as an alternative to these troublesome queens.

The play’s clever staging of a grey box and a massive cross of light at the back is a constant reminder that religion and conviction are as intrinsic as the political machinations of politics and love affairs that take place away from the courtly pleasantries.

By Shelley Marsden

Henry (Nathaniel Parker) and Anne (Lydia Leonard)
Henry (Nathaniel Parker) and Anne (Lydia Leonard)

Bring up the Bodies focuses on the part of the Tudor story when Anne Boleyn’s demise begins, and Thomas Cromwell grows in power within the English monarchy.

The action begins with the dramatic killing of a stag at the hand of King Henry’s arrow, he then begins to dismember the animal and reap glory in its blood – an image which no doubt symbolised the brutality of the time and the man himself.

It is not long into the play when his affections turn towards Jane Seymour.

At this point he is waiting for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, to die and has grown tired of Boleyn, who has also (sigh) failed to give him a son.

From this point we begin to track the inevitable fall of Anne as queen and the part in which Thomas Cromwell played in her gruesome end- “It’s as if I don’t exist…it’s as if I never had Elizabeth and Catherine is still queen”.

The characters and script showed how, although Anne was no wilting flower, her trial was grossly unjust as all evidence seemed to be based on the King’s personal intentions to rid himself of her and general gossip among her ladies maids.

Though this play dealt with dark periods in history, an excellent script and skilful unwinding of the story made for a thoroughly enjoyable performance.

Despite dark undertones and the looming threat to Anne’s life, unexpected wit seemed to filter through in many scenes.

Tickets are still available to buy for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, with best availability in July and August. Day Seats are available to purchase in person at the Box Office from 10.30am on the day of performance.

By Leah Quinn

• Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies run at the Aldwych Theatre, London, until 6 September.


Sign in or create your account to join the discussion

Register now to keep up to date with all the latest:

  • Irish News
  • Sport
  • Community and Entertainment

Sign up to our Newsletter to be in with a chance to win a snazzy iPad and for all the latest...

  • Email updates
  • Regular features
  • Competitions and give aways