Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel’

The first two books in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Oliver Cromwell and Henry VIII were adapted and staged by the RSC seven years ago, five years after the publication of Wolf Hall and just two after Bring Up the Bodies. This third part took another eight years to be published, but just one more to hit the stage. I think the seven year gap means it loses something, as does the bigger theatre (I saw the first two parts on the same day in The Swan Theatre at Stratford), but even so, it’s a well staged and expertly performed slice of a fascinating period in our history.

We pick up the story after Anne Boleyn is despatched and Jane Seymour quickly wed, taking us through Jane’s death soon after the birth of Edward and the desperation of bringing Anne of Cleves from Germany (based on a picture Holbein was despatched to paint, which may have flattered her, but for reasons more political than romantic) for a loveless match, the dissolution of which humiliates Henry and deposes Cromwell, as he falls from favour with Henry while the Howard’s and their gang are positioning their Catherine as wife No. 5.

It zips along, but not at the expense of good storytelling, holding you in its grip throughout. The language is modern and there is much humour, which doesn’t detract from the dramatic events portrayed. I couldn’t help thinking that ninety-nine percent of the population at the time would have probably been oblivious to what was an obsession for the other one percent; a bit like politics today really. Some have said the adaptation – by Mantel and Ben Miles, the actor who has played Cromwell in all three parts – doesn’t live up to Mike Poulton’s adaptation of the previous two parts, but I don’t feel the seven year gap allows comparison.

Christoper Oram’s stage design is simple, almost non-existent, so the creation of the period relies on his fabulous, sumptuous costumes. Jeremy Herrin’s staging too seems unobtrusive, so it’s down to the performances to do the heavy lifting, and the fine ensemble rise to the occasion. Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker reprise their roles as Cromwell and Henry and both are brilliant in portraying such contrasting characters, and a number of others return from the previous parts. I particularly liked Nicholas Woodeson’s Norfolk, a poison dwarf, Ian Drysdale as the French Ambassador and Rosanna Adams as Anne of Cleves, an impressive professional debut.

Notwithstanding the gap and the bigger theatre, I think its well worth staging, and I felt it was a lot better than the critical consensus, which may be part of a Mantel backlash. The British today like to bring down the successful, just like they did in the 16th Century!

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Seeing both of these plays in the same day immerses you in 35 years of Tudor history, but it seems odd to hear it unfold in 21st century speech as we’re so used to our history plays being written hundreds of years ago. It’s Shakespearean in scale, narrative drive and characterisation and somehow it feels like something Shakespeare would have written if he’d been writing today. Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s books are actually a bit of a triumph.

Wolf Hall covers the period from Henry VIII’s decision to dump Katherine through to his courting of Jane Seymour whilst still married to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up The Bodies covers a shorter period up to Anne’s execution. Both are told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. It’s an unusual way to present history and it works well because it broadens the canvas from ‘the royals’ to embrace the stories of all of the characters. We don’t have to concentrate so much on the dialogue because it’s everyday speech, so we think more about people’s motivations. In Jeremy Herrin’s production, it races along without feeling rushed and rarely lags.

The Swan space is unadorned; just a few props and some fire. There’s an atmospheric (mostly musical) soundscape. Christopher Oram’s costumes are superb and you see the passage of time through Cromwell’s increasingly grander outfits and Henry’s additional padding! Ben Miles is excellent as Cromwell, unassuming but loyal and determined. I loved Nathaniel Parker’s Henry; I particularly admired the way he captured the changes in him over the period of the plays. Theer are too many more fine performances to single any out; suffice to say it’s an excellent ensmeble.

This is accessible historical fiction. Easy to digest, often funny and always entertaining. I left the theatre feeling very satisifed indeed.

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