The secret of the success of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is seeing the events of the reign of Henry VIII through the eyes of an unlikely character in the grand sweep of history, Thomas Cromwell. A London lawyer with a reputation for toughness and bullying, the son of a butcher and therefore not a gentleman, a collector of books by Luther and Tyndale’s bible – and therefore treading a fine line between protestant sympathies and heresy, a rich man, but a supporter of Cardinal Wolsey and therefore in danger of losing his own place as Wolsey was brought down, Cromwell is almost too interesting himself to be a Jamesian reflector – that novelistic device that Henry James used to achieve narrative subtlety.
In Mantel’s two volumes, Cromwell plays such a role, though, allowing us intimate insight into the king, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and her family, Princess Mary, the courtiers Wyatt, Brandon, Percy, Norris, Weston and the rest, plus the clergy Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas More. In her work we seem them all in relation to Cromwell, and what we think and feel about them depends a bit upon how they affect his standing, security and well-being.
This won’t work in the theatre, where what we see is not controlled by what a narrator tells us, and action has to echo dialogue. If ever there were fiendishly difficult works of fiction to adapt for the theatre, I’d say Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were prize examples. So I want to award the laurels to Mike Poulton for his dramatisations of them, and to director Jeremy Herrin and his team for their stagecraft in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s staging of this pair of dramas at Stratford-upon-Avon. (Poulton, incidentally, was responsible for the glorious version of Fortune’s Fool by Turgenev, still playing at the Old Vic, which has made me revise my view of Turgenev as a playwright very considerably.)
There are some superb performances. I don’t think I’ll forget Ben Miles as a charismatic Cromwell, who smooths out his thuggish contours so well that by the end of the second play (which I saw as a double-bill in a single day) he seems a gentle and loveable man; or Nathaniel Parker, who, despite the sharpness of his cheekbones, somehow convinces you that he resembles the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII. Paul Jesson is fine doubling as a high-living Wolsey and an enfeebled Canterbury, and several of the women give gripping performances, especially Lucy Briers as the hard-as-nails Katherine, Lydia Leonard as the increasingly ruthless Anne Boleyn and Leah Brotherhood as a Jane Seymour who evolves from mousy to mistress-y.
Yet what is most striking about this pair of plays is their whirlwind tempo. They are performed almost without props or sets– though designer Christopher Oram hints at Tudor panelling and the period costumes look correct in every detail. Scenes change cinematically, as though employing montage: the next scene always seems to have begun exactly one beat before the last one ends – yet no one ever seems to be rushed or hurried. Paule Constable’s lighting has a lot to do with this, but I think the effect has been achieved mostly by choreography and spectacular troupe discipline and drilling.
It leads me to the reflection that, over the 50 years I’ve been privileged to see productions by the RSC in Stratford and at the Aldwych and Barbican in London, and occasionally in the West End, history plays are what the company does at its supreme best.
OK, Mantel and Poulton are not Shakespeare, and any felicities of language are of a different order. But I’m not sure the drama itself is by so much inferior. Having written this, I’m going to look at the reviews by my colleagues in the dramatic section of the Critics’ Circle. Does anyone agree with me, I wonder?