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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Aldwych


  Nathaniel Parker and Lydia Leonard/ Ph: Keith Pattison

Thomas Cromwell’s transition from obscure hitman for Henry VIII to one of the dominant literary characters of our age is triumphantly vindicated in the RSC’s lucid, elegant and forceful adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels. We are so familiar with the moment when Henry VIII started his relationship with Anne Boleyn that it’s almost like historical soap opera. Yet Cromwell – a Plato-quoting pit bull of a man – wittily reawakens us to the intellectual and diplomatic complexities of the time through his dour perspective. "His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured. … He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury," writes Mantel of the lawyer and statesman. A daunting proposition for any actor, but Ben Miles shoulders the burden with deft humour and a visceral presence that quietly dominates every scene in which he appears.
There are inevitably quite a few logistical challenges to staging a plot that involves manipulating the Pope, pissing off Charles V and turning heresy into an art form. Not to mention animating all the intrigues of a court that Henry VIII strove to make the most sophisticated in Europe. In Mantel’s novels, the story come to life by the tight welding of physical sensation with the sparks of thought it provokes. The smells, ribaldry and cacophony of Tudor England are all vividly present as Henry writes love poems and churchmen agonise over the conflicting marital advice written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
What’s fascinating, then, about the RSC production is that director Jeremy Herrin has made the counterintuitive but brilliant decision to pare back the physicality of the text. Instead we see the characters almost as if they were in one of the elegant Tudor dances that punctuate the action. They loop back and forth, take it in turns to occupy centre-stage, engage in flirtations of both sex and power. It is – aptly – through the language that the richness of Mantel’s vision is realized. Mike Poulter’s adaptation revels in its spare wit, but also meticulously details the bloodcurdling punishments and treacherous political undercurrents that awaited anyone who made a false step in the increasingly complex choreography of Henry’s court.
Miles’ Cromwell is a man clearly honed by hardship. There’s a constant wry glint in his eye, but it’s accompanied by a physical forcefulness discernible in the jut of the chin and the broad set of his shoulders. Here he seems the perfect foil to Nathaniel Parker’s forceful yet mercurial Henry VIII, who exudes charisma and wit even as he makes decisions that will cost other people their lives. It’s more difficult to appreciate now than it was then, but Henry and Anne were essentially reinventing reality. The sheer willpower needed to rob the Pope of his authority and dispossess Catherine, who was of course the Emperor’s aunt, was of Richter scale proportions. So it is fascinating to witness the madness through Cromwell’s cool perspicacious gaze. Miles’ performance allows us to be both amused and appalled by it at the same time as we recognize the need for him to enforce it.
Despite the fact that the two plays together run at almost six hours, the time seems to pass as quickly as an executioner’s blade through a treasonous neck. Wolf Hall takes us up to the point when Henry and Anne marry, and Bring Up the Bodies details its unraveling. As well as the strong central performances, the productions demonstrate fantastic ensemble work with several highlights. Leah Brotherhead is amusingly beguiling as the sing-song-voiced Jane Seymour; Lydia Leonard is a wonderfully waspish Anne Boleyn; and Lucy Briers is a fearsomely resilient Katherine. Paul Jesson’s Wolsey deftly balances his magisterial qualities with his increasing vulnerability (though he makes a couple too many appearances as a ghost in Bring Up the Bodies, it is not really his fault), and Nicholas Boulton is an enjoyably brash Duke of Suffolk.
Overall it is the genius of these two productions that they convey the richness of Cromwell’s world without seeming to bludgeon you. This is enabled not least by Christopher Oram’s beautifully sparse set, where the backdrop is delineated by a simple cross that both dominates the stage and breaks apart the walls, providing a perfect counterbalance to the complexity of the story. It was a stupendous gamble, and it’s paid off – a much trodden period of history has been reinvented with verve and élan. It will be fascinating to see what the RSC and Mantel between them will do with the third part of the trilogy.


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