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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Aldwych


  Lydia Leonard, Lucy Briers, Oscar Pearce, Nathaniel Parker, Madeleine Hyland and Leah Brotherhead/ Ph: Keith Pattison

As one of the few people I know who hasn’t read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, I’m unable to compare Mike Poulton’s epic five-and-a-half-hour stage adaptation with the 1246-page Booker prize-winner. If, however, you believe that comparisons are odious, it might just be as well.
Having no preconceptions whatsoever of how Mantel’s bestselling double-decker would translate from page to stage, I entered the Aldwych with an open mind and thrillingly left it several hours later wonderfully entertained – not so much by the historical facts (which, like any bright schoolboy, I already knew) but by the imaginary conversations and private embellishments with which Mantel and Poulton have fleshed out one of the richest, most intriguing periods of English history.
The first play, Wolf Hall, begins in 1527 with Henry VIII frustrated that, after 20 years of marriage to Katharine of Aragon, he is still without an heir. Regardless of the ensuing complications – both religious and political – he is determined to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn in the hope that she’ll provide him with the son he so desperately wants. To this end he instructs Cardinal Wolsey to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage. Wolsey fails and his failure ultimately leads to his death.
Insinuating himself into this pivotal Royal issue is a wealthy commoner-cum-lawyer-cum-politician, Thomas Cromwell, whose father was a blacksmith from Putney, and who, through subtle and often ruthless means, parlays himself into becoming the most powerful commoner in England.
The second play, Bring Up the Bodies, begins in 1535. Anne Boleyn is queen, Katharine and her daughter Mary are under house arrest. Henry is still without an heir. Not only that, but in order to marry Anne he has broken his allegiance to the Catholic Church, which leaves him (and England) politically vulnerable.
As for Cromwell, with Wolsey dead and the conflicted heretic-pursuer Sir Thomas More executed, Cromwell has grown even closer to Henry and has become his most valued advisor. He also has to find a way to discredit Anne so that the king can marry pretty little Jane Seymour.
So much for the historical facts, which Poulton has navigated most adroitly. What, however, makes this double bill so engrossing has less to do with facts than with the undocumented moments that enshrine them. The real achievement, it would appear, of Mantel’s novels is imbuing history with a totally invented domestic context. While so much is chronicled about Cromwell’s political achievements, very little is known about the man himself, his everyday surroundings or how he interacted with his family, his enemies, his friends.
What Mantel and Poulton have done is create within such a tumultuous time a more human and personal perspective, so much so that you could be forgiven for thinking, as events unfurl, that you’re watching a superior, totally engrossing historical soap opera.
The authors are helped by an excellent cast headed by Ben Miles as Cromwell, here interpreted as an attractive, laid back, highly complex figure who doesn’t miss a trick and is compassionate, ruthless and chillingly ambitious.
Nathaniel Parker endows King Henry with a capriciousness that ranges from moments of endearing insecurity to unreasonable spoilt-brat rages when he is displeased with something or someone. John Ramm, without having much to do, effectively shows us the unattractive side of Sir Thomas More’s dogged intransigence, and Paul Jesson is excellent as a distinctly pliable Wolsey.
On the distaff side, Lydia Leonard is unflinchingly ruthless as the scheming, bullying Anne Boleyn; Lucy Briers is touchingly dignified as Katharine of Aragon; and Leah Brotherhead as Jane Seymour convincingly matures from court nonentity to an attractive woman all to aware of the role history has bestowed on her.
The plays are directed with an uncluttered, exemplary lucidity by Jeremy Herrin in the grand Royal Shakespeare Company tradition, and the economical, sparsely decorated set and rich costumes are designed by Christopher Oram.
Seeing these plays at the Aldwych Theater, an erstwhile home for many years of the RSC, is like returning to old times. Welcome back!


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