Did she really do it? It’s one of great unknowns of history and has been debated for hundreds of years – did Anne Boleyn really conduct a series of adulterous affairs right under the nose of Henry VIII, or were charges trumped up to smooth the King’s path to marriage number 3? Bring Up the Bodies, based on the second of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell, deals with the period leading up to Anne’s fall and the extent to which Cromwell is implicated in designing her death.
As with last week’s Wolf Hall review, I want to think about this as a standalone play and how effectively these events have been dramatised. It’s 1535, Henry after years of intrigue has finally married Anne Boleyn and the cracks are beginning to show. Thus far the relationship has cost him several members of his inner-circle including executed counsellors Wolsey and Thomas More, and has caused a scandal in Christendom, severing England from the Church of Rome.
This adaption feels considerably more successful than Wolf Hall; partly because there is a tighter narrative focus, covering just Anne’s final year, and better emphasising the drama and danger of the period. Despite its three hour run-time, it continues to engage the audience, especially in the second act when Anne and her supposed lovers are questioned, tried and dispatched. Four of the accused were allocated a corner of the stage, each visited by Cromwell in turn giving Ben Miles a chance to exhibit Master Secretary’s persuasive, and threatening, techniques. As with Wolf Hall it is Miles who excels in this production, conveying the skill of man moving between factions, guiding the King into prudent decisions and intimidating others to conform. As with Mantel’s character, it’s a rich performance subtly implying the variety of Cromwell’s early life experiences – blacksmith, mercenary, and lawyer – bringing them to bear with considerable effect in Henry’s service. And, at around five and half hours of almost continual stage presence across both productions, it really is a remarkable achievement.
Most of the cast are also pretty good; Nathanial Parker’s padded Henry is slightly buffoonish and not nearly as clever as his key advisor, but shows bursts of Henry’s anger and regret. Lydia Leonard’s Anne is haughty and cruel, oblivious to what’s going on around her and not really humbled by her arrest. Unlike recent interpretations there’s no sympathy for Anne here which is fine given evidence of her guilt or innocence is inconclusive, but there is a lack of chemistry with Henry which makes the relationship between them slightly unbelievable.
It is a gripping and exciting production which takes some bold decisions with its staging, particularly the reliance on lighting rather than set to depict changes of location, time and season, which is managed as well as I have ever seen it. There is a live orchestra helping to underscore the mood, and echoed sound is used for the ghost-device when Cromwell is visited by the spirits of Wolsey and Thomas More – a bit cheesy but it helps to give voice to some of Cromwell’s inner thoughts and reiterates Cromwell’s core motivation which is to revenge himself on those who destroyed Wolsey.
On the whole then, I think Bring Up the Bodies works better as a standalone play than Wolf Hall. Although I was glad to see them both, if you’re short of time or put off by the ticket prices, then maybe just see part two. The people next to me in the theatre hadn’t seen Wolf Hall but thoroughly enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies, so little pre-knowledge is required to enjoy it.
So did she do it? Well, this production goes against some recent scholarship and the TV show that suggest the innocent Anne was certainly framed by Henry. Here instead we get something much more complex, the rumours of her lifestyle abound long before the breach with Henry takes place, and the action is subtly laced with references to inappropriate activities. It is a while before Cromwell puts these throw-away comments together to construct a case against her and we see his political astuteness in reasoning away the number of men involved in order to make Henry look better in the eyes of Europe. It is clear that the men are almost certainly innocent, but Anne herself is guilty of something. Like a 20s mobster prosecuted for tax evasion, Anne is rightly condemned but maybe not for the crime she actually committed. If nothing else these plays and Mantel’s excellent novels reinforce how fascinated we are by the Tudor Court and the debate that still surrounds history’s most famous mistress.
Bring Up the Bodies is at the Aldwych Theatre until 6th October. Tickets start at £11 from Ticketmaster.