Who’s your favourite King? Chances are it is Henry VIII; more than 500 years since his accession Britons remain fascinated by his rule. His time seems to sit on the cusp of medieval and modern, in the space of 40 years transforming the systems around him – breaking with Rome, dissolving the monasteries and appropriating their funds, creating a new church and making himself head of it, so bringing religious schism to the heart of government. His personal life too is a dramatist’s dream; one wife for nearly 25 years followed by five others in half that time, divorces, executions, changing lines of succession and the disposal of faithful servants when they had served their purpose. Not to mention his life-long quest to subdue the French which was guaranteed to win him a few fans. Monstrous dictator or lonely man looking for love and a male heir, Henry’s reign has proved one of the most exciting and pivotal in our history.
The RSC is then the latest in a long line of people looking to find new meaning in The Tudor era in their adaptation of Wolf Hall, based on the Booker Prize winning and Damehood earning novel by Hilary Mantel. This is showing in repertoire with Bring Up the Bodies from Mantel’s second book in the yet incomplete trilogy about Henry’s political ‘fixer’ Thomas Cromwell. All the reviews of the London production have treated the two plays as one but I was interested in seeing to what extent each is an interesting piece of theatre in its own right, and I deliberately wrote this review before seeing part two.
Wolf Hall covers a period of 10-13 years (depending on the sources you look at) from Henry first meeting Anne Boleyn to the death of Thomas More, taking in the divorce of Catherine of Aragon, birth of Elizabeth I, fall of Wolsey and growth of Protestantism. To some extent these massive events deliberately fade into the background as we see Cromwell’s political rise to power through interaction with other members of the court. It is his methods that are examined rather than the end result which, though interesting, can feel like too light a touch at times. Ben Miles’s Cromwell is excellent at conveying the intelligence, manoeuvrability and, when necessary, the danger of the man a King relied on. This performance anchors the whole play, nicely bringing out Cromwell’s sometimes painful personal feelings and how well he had to hide them to perform his role. The scenes depicting his various methods of coercion with the King and with prisoners are particularly impressive.
Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is a softer interpretation than we often see; largely a jovial figure, probably not that clever and easily persuadable, but as ‘the lion’ begins to realise his power the threats and anger emerge when pushed to extremes. Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn is not the devious flirt of recent adaptations but super-smart and openly arrogant, orchestrating the King’s conversion to the new religion. Some of the other characters are less well drawn however – Henry’s boys club of rowdy friends, Suffolk and Norfolk, are little more than noisy hooligans snapping at Cromwell’s low birth. It doesn’t properly imply the threat that this new man posed to the traditional elites, nor do they seem likely companions for the more sedate interpretation of Henry that we see. It was also nice to see a cameo from Barbara Windsor as Mary Boleyn… oh no, sorry, I’ve checked my programme and it was actually Olivia Darnley doing a fine impression of everyone’s favourite landlady in her Carry On days.
It’s well staged with almost no props meaning the scene changes happen in an instant with a change of lighting which helps to keep a brisk pace. But while more than a decade of events hurtles by in scene after scene, the second half does feel leg-crampingly long. Once Henry married Anne the audience began to get restless and for those who hadn’t read the book, it wasn’t clear where the cut-off point would be. The most disappointing part was the lack of fear in the Tudor court and the very difficult climate in which these events took place. At no time was Henry certain a divorce would be granted and he endured years of evasion from the Vatican before even contemplating his own solution. Factions at court are hinted at, but they don’t imply the danger they could cause, and the very real possibility of gruesome execution for those who failed to deliver what the King wanted. Cromwell was adept at managing this but he would have known and feared the risks.
All in all, Wolf Hall is ok as a stand-alone play and the less knowledge of Tudor history you have the better – knowing almost none at all, the lady in the next seat enjoyed it more than I did. Mocked as I may be for this, it’s also difficult to shake-off a comparison with The Tudors series which dealt with a similar period over 14 or 15 episodes. While here I enjoyed the varied approach to the core players, some of the others just didn’t ring as true as they did in the novel or in the TV version – it’s hard to beat Sam Neil’s incredible Cardinal Wolsey or Jeremy Northam’s Thomas More. I suspect that Bring Up the Bodies will make this feel more complete, dealing with Anne’s trial and execution which offers a tighter narrative structure. So in true soap opera style, tune in next week to find out….
Wolf Hall is at the Aldwych Theatre until 4 October. Tickets start at £11 which were available on the Ticketmaster website.