Tag Archives: Ben Miles

The Mirror and the Light – Gielgud Theatre

The Mirror and the Light - Gielgud Theatre (by Tristram Kenton)

Last year, Hilary Mantel completed what was a mammoth undertaking with her thrice Booker nominated novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell. Regardless of opinions about their density or narrative style, the trilogy is unarguably a landmark in modern fiction that reorientates an already too familiar era, bringing insight and humanity to the reign of Henry VIII. The Royal Shakespeare Company now completes its own mammoth undertaking with the dramatisation of the final novel The Mirror and the Light, beating the BBC who have also adapted Mantel’s Booker-winning earlier segments. Unusually for the RSC, this show premiers in London rather than Stratford.

Opening at the Gielgud Theatre this week, what successfully sets the stage version of The Mirror and the Light apart from its predecessors is the inclusion of lead actor Ben Miles on the writing team, working with Mantel to adapt the 900-page source material for the theatre. And Miles brings such craft to the task of playwright, an actor and technician rather than a novelist’s eye, slimming the plot to its essential elements to build tension as Cromwell completes his character arc with one final chapter. The result is a far sprightlier piece of theatre that turns its episodic quality into an interesting character study of the King and his best man.

The challenges of adapting a novel for the stage are not insubstantial, especially one of such size and depth as The Mirror and the Light. How to take interior monologue and authorial voice that dominate the construction of the novel and transform that into a visual medium is not easy when characters almost always have to say things which are usually thought. That process can sometimes feel clunky or unlike natural speech, while the alternatives including soliloquies or dream sequences can unbalance the tone if the individuals are seen to talk to no one.

Instead, the problem for Mantel and Miles is to present enough of the book’s shape through the prudent selection of material and opportunities for characters to unpack their thoughts and emotional developments through speech, or, more crucially, creating strategic moments of pause where performance can fill the void that words and description leave behind.

The added complexity in this adaptation is the historical reality of the setting, a place that every schoolchild knows well, so managing the audience’s expectations while resisting the urge to play to them is tricky. This is not a version of Henry VIII’s story as The Tudors was, but quite specifically a reading of Mantel’s novel which must consistently present the play through that lens, seeing it from Mantel’s perspective is vital. Key to that is to maintain Cromwell’s point of view and centrality to the narrative around which more recognisable events take place. Almost like a production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this is familiar but unfamiliar, a story we know but seen from a new angle.

This adaptation of The Mirror and the Light largely achieves that, ensuring Cromwell remains at the heart of the work around which Henry’s marital woes play out. Across 2.5 hours of action, Mantel and Miles extract events and conversations from the novel that advance our understanding of Crowell as a character and how the forces mass against him. Their skill here is in drawing the sequence of events together and making them appear haphazard, as life happens day by day, and with no sense of predetermined outcome as Cromwell navigates and controls those around him. Yet, Mantel and Miles build-in a series of markers through the play, points of no return that take Cromwell towards his destruction, communing with the past and his living antagonists including the Duke of Norfolk and Bishop Gardiner who push Cromwell beyond his own powers.

As a character study, this is the place at which the ghosts are beginning to gather for the King’s favourite and, drawing on a key theme from the novel, Cromwell spends almost as much time looking backwards as he does forwards, troubled, even fatally unsettled, by his role in past events including the long shadow of Wolsey’s fall from grace that facilitated Cromwell’s own rise to power. The appearance of the Cardinal’s spirit is sparingly managed, often providing small opportunities for comedy as Cromwell explores his own soul as well as his connection to those who continue to haunt the survivors. His own father acts here as a conscience, pulling at Cromwell’s surety as he worries about the consequences of rising too high and knowing how far there is to fall. Something explored in many pages within the novel makes a neat transition to the stage with this simple but evocative device, all the more effective for its limited use.

Mantel and Miles create shape in the staging by adding what is in effect a lengthy pre-title sequence showing the beginning of the end for the lead, and The Mirror and the Light wastes no time in launching into the action with a bemused but still deliberating Cromwell being questioned in the Tower, a sequence that lasts for several minutes to frame the play. This anchors the audience, giving the narrative a driving point to return to while simultaneously resonating with the memory theme that underscores this third play. From here, the primary action becomes a flashback, reinforcing this notion that Cromwell is reflecting on his choices and trying to decipher the moment or moments it all went wrong.

All of this gives The Mirror and the Light greater dramatic purpose than the earlier parts, both of which were a little stiffer in their construction – the downside of producing adaptations before the ending (other than the obvious) is not knowing quite how the novelist will construe the conclusion – but Mantel and Miles also give this final instalment a greater levity, a natural, easy humour that feeds through the show. Some of that is in the more obvious comedy created by the appearance of spirits as well as knowing references to the future for Henry such as his impending Howard bride. But there is also an artful wryness in the dialogue that feels credible in the interactions between Cromwell and others, giving him an offhand charisma that reinforces his grounding in this court, the relationships he has built to keep the business of the State running smoothly and giving him gradations as a character.

The role of Cromwell fits Ben Miles like a glove and here he cements his position as the greatest personification of Mantel’s hero, even better than Rylance, in his ability to balance the sense of command and administrative excellence with the growing doubts as Cromwell, now with so much to lose, walks the tightrope of monarchical support, a significant aspect of which is to chart his failing judgement and the subtle influence of Jane Rochester in, intentionally or not, poisoning his mind. On stage almost for the entirety of the show, there is a satisfying balance in Miles’s performance and his ease in the role exactly conveys Cromwell’s own comfortable position and certainty even to the last moments of his freedom.

This is immeasurably aided by Miles’s role in crafting a script that allows him to build into the creation all of the characteristics and styles that play to his strengths as an actor, always looking to understate within the dialogue in order to give himself space to act the role. A failing of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies was a tendency to overwrite where the lead can demonstrate, and here this balance is much tighter, the result of which is to bolster Miles’s dominance of the character, freeing him up to bring nuance and grace to a trilogy of performances that are nothing less than definitive.

Reprising his roles as Henry, Nathaniel Parker also expands on his performance as the blustering King chaffing against the control of his courtiers – another notable theme from the novel that transitions well to the stage. Parker’s Henry is also afforded room to explore his desire for love that contends with his duty and there are some lovely moments in the aftermath of Jane’s death and his doomed marriage to Anna of Cleeves where Parker can show an almost childlike emotional simplicity in Henry that brings depth to the ‘old bear’.

There is strength in the female roles and Melissa Allan makes a great deal of the devoutly religious Lady Mary who displays the stubbornness and even the ire that defines her future, but she is also a frightened young woman looking for sympathy and finding a fragment of human connection with Cromwell. Similarly, Olivia Marcus makes Jane purposefully bland, a blank canvas onto which Henry can project an image of his perfect wife, while Rosanna Adams pitches the warming of Anna of Cleeves just right, the accent and manner giving her an otherness in the court with just enough relief at being able to have fun in England for the first time.

Designer Christopher Oram returns to his tomb-like set, creating the impression of grand medieval buildings with a multi-layered metal cage hanging over the actors, which fractionally lowers as Cromwell nears his end. The simplicity of the design with few props and stage furniture actually becomes a representative space for many locations allowing Director Jeremy Herrin to swiftly turn scenes to maintain that springy momentum that Mantel and Miles have built into the script. All of this is enhanced Stephen Warbeck’s imposing soundscape that crackles with portents while Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design appears to draw on Flemish paintings of light in church spaces to create a Protestant starkness for the court, but also uses colour to imply the blazing warmth of fires and the dreamier hues of the spirit world.

Depending on your taste for comedy, here and there the approach is a little too broad including the presentation of the Duke of Suffolk, while the singular inclusion of a scene with Wolsey’s daughter is a little superfluous outside the novel (and arguably within it). Yet Mantel and Miles have combined a sizeable semi-fictional tome and the familiar historical story of Henry VIII, distilling them into a properly theatrical show with something new to say about this era and the humble man who, for 10 years, commanded a king.

The Mirror and the Light is at the Gielgud Theatre until 23 January with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Lehman Trilogy – National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy - National Theatre

10 years on from the financial crisis and its effects are still with us; continued austerity, political instability around the world and a hankering for the mythological peace of a past that never was. Many reports, books and films have been made to try to explain what happened in September 2008 as banks toppled and governments took strategic decisions on whether to rescue major institutions from bankruptcy. Years of accumulated debt, resold and repackaged, complex and unstable finally brought the house down, and the first to fall was Lehman Brothers, a firm built by three brothers who moved from 1840s Germany to Alabama to sell suits and fabrics, who became the architects of a new mode of business, they were “the middle men”.

A success across Europe since its premiere in Italy in 2015, Stefano Massini’s epic and much anticipated three-hour story of those brothers, their sons and grandsons finally arrives at the National Theatre, adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes. Already close to selling-out, anyone with a ticket should congratulate themselves while everyone else should queue for day seats, try Friday Rush or beg for returns because The Lehman Trilogy is utterly spectacular, a rare and beautifully-made theatrical triumph that deserves all the plaudits that will come raining down at this week’s press night.

In 1844, Henry Lehman, known as “the Head”, arrives in America to establish a modest but buoyant clothing store in a small Alabama town. Soon joined by brothers Emanuel (“The Arm”) and Mayer (“Spud”) the business expands, acting as the go-between for the plantation and cotton mill owners while amassing a sizeable fortune. After Henry’s death, Emanuel moves to New York to trade coffee, soon ordering his remaining brother to join him, where they expand their financial interests and their line. Outstripped by the next generation, Emanuel’s son Philip takes the firm in a new direction, but in the aftermath of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, Emanuel’s grandson Bobby inherits the firm and 160 years of trading decisions suddenly come back to haunt them.

Massini’s approach is remarkably theatrical, using a spoken-narrative in which the actors describe their own character’s activities and each other’s, while dramatizing particular conversations or encounters. This becomes deeply engaging and adds a fluid quality to a quick succession of scenes. It departs from films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short by sidestepping the complexities of the financial dealings that led to the 2008 crash. Instead, throughout each of the play’s three sections, shown together on one night, it is the human story, the family tragedy that Massini wishes us to see, how a man content to own a single shop spawned a trading empire that became greedier with each generation. The monetary complexities of loans to people who couldn’t pay, of buying debt and tricky stock manoeuvres you can find elsewhere, this is not so much what happened as why.

Part I: Three Brothers takes the story from Henry’s embarkation to Mayer joining Emanuel in New York, Part II: Fathers and Sons picks up the story until the morning of the Wall Street Crash, while Part III: The Immortals bookends its narrative with financial crises, finishing on that fatal autumn day in 2008. Over the course of three gripping hours, Massini contrasts growing profit with declining religious observance as the once devoted Jewish family trade-in their sacred rituals to focus on business as usual, and it’s notable that days of mourning and beard growth are, generations later, reduced to a few minutes silence before the continual clamour of the trading floor resumes.

And within that, there is a continual reminder of the wealth and status of America founded on waves of immigration from Europe, with their continual challenge to earn social status. This plays out not only in the original Lehmans trying to win prospective brides among the established elite, but in the growing Americanisation of their children and grandchildren, with Massini arguing that the Lehmans born in the USA have a different hunger, one that breeds confidence and inalienable right. Even in the post-Lehman family era at the end of the play it is a Hungarian who heads the company, a statement on the continued role that immigration has played in the shaping of a superpower.

What Power’s adaptation and Mendes’s direction does so brilliantly is to draw out the changing notion of belief, of fate and of trust. The original brothers have integrity, they believe in the power of their God and ask the men of the South, the plantation owners and local governors, to trust them personally, which they do. A century on and that belief is now invested in the mythical money that sits on balance sheets and trading screens, the men themselves, like Philip, Bobby and their non-Lehman successors at the company feel like Gods themselves, commanding empires of words and numbers, none of it with any physical substance.

Power and Mendes also carefully mark the various times in Lehman Brothers’ history when the firm came close to failure, when the literal and metaphorical fires almost consumed them. The burning cotton fields that led them to their first government investment after the American Civil War sit notably against the dark days of 1929 when somehow the family clung on, emerging into a new era of business even stronger than before, until the post-war division between banking and trading consumed them. There is a huge tragedy about a family who begin and end with nothing. As Simon Russell Beale’s character momentously states in Part III, “they were immortal until they weren’t.”

There really is no better choice for a project like this than Mendes whose recent stage-work has created a feel of epic intimacy. With his King Lear for the National some years ago and in particular The Ferryman (of which Mendes’s direction was like musical conduction), his ability to paint on a huge canvas, to show size, scale, history and reach while at the same time boiling that down to the personal relationship between two people is a pure joy. He wants the audience to care for the original brothers, to appreciate their desire to succeed, their fascination with America and how touching the destruction of their legacy becomes. Yet in every decision, every dream, every change of direction, Mendes makes you feel the long-term ramifications, knowing it’s another step towards their own destruction a hundred years later.

Set-designer Es Devlin has done some of her best work here on Lehman, and like many before her reduces the expanse of the Lyttelton stage by creating a huge glass and steel modern office set with large boardroom and two smaller meeting spaces, amongst which the actors create a century of history. It may have been simpler to fly-in backdrops for each era, but instead the three brothers walk like ghosts around the future, the office-set a constant reminder of where all their effort and toil ended-up. It has an ominous quality that works beautifully with Luke Halls wrap-around video screens that project scenes of the cotton fields of the Alabama countryside one minute and New York skyscrapers the next, all predominantly in black and white, views from the glass office windows, a presence but not a distraction.

Mendes uses both to considerable effect, rotating the set as a nod to the passing years, or during moments of high drama as events spiral out of control. One of the best scenes is during the latter part of the show as the last Lehman, Bobby, and his colleagues do a twist to indicate the wildness of the traders doing their inexplicable work, and rather than rotate the office, the video screen display of stocks start to spin, building to a rapid blur so that it becomes hard to tell what is still and what is moving, a clever and pointed comment about the heady free-for-all that became the 1980s and 90s on Wall Street.

The Lehman Triology has six major characters and a secondary cast of wives, children, colleagues, Rabbis and politicians that could easily require a sizeable company of actors. Unlike earlier version with a much larger cast, Director Sam Mendes slims this down to just three actors onstage for the duration who play all the roles between them and, while dressed for 1844 and standing in 2008, have nothing but words to conjure for us the history and atmosphere of America from the coach-and-horses days of the mid-nineteenth century South to the New York of the twenty-first century. A feat which they achieve extremely effectively and with incredible power.

These are tour de force performances from Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, who work superbly together to create a much wider ensemble with just a few “bankers boxes”, the cardboard storage containers that so many employees used to remove their things from their failed company, as props. Russell Beale’s Henry may be short-lived but has a determination to succeed, and as the “Head” establishes what will be a considerable legacy. But Russell Beale clearly has most fun as comic sketches of so many other characters, girlish debutants and embittered wives, precocious children and eventually a more substantial role as Emanuel’s son, the rather cold Philip, who first inherited the business, shocking his father with the shift from products to money as its core focus.

As Emanuel, Ben Miles brings confidence and command to the suave middle brother who charms the Alabama gentry as easily as his wins-over New York society. Emanuel is the most ambitious of the brothers, eager and determined to expand, but shrewd in his choices and it is no surprise that it is his line that inherits the bank. Miles lends him great charisma which he later brings to the smaller role of Herbert (Mayer’s son) who utilised the family charm and killer instinct to become Governor of New York and eventually a Senator. Miles also brings home the stark personal cost of financial collapse at the start of Part III, ominously and emotively revealing the quick success of stockbroker suicides in 1929.

Mayer Lehman is the most reticent of the three, and Adam Godley reveals a quieter, more thoughtful character, nicknamed “Spud” as a child, and not considered the intellectual equal of his siblings. Yet, he rises to the occasion after Henry’s death to partner his remaining brother in the firm. Godley also plays Emanuel’s grandson Bobby (Philip’s son), an aloof aesthete who invests in art while, as an old man, takes the firm into the computer age, heralding its own destruction as the company owner  unable to understand the mechanics of the business he’s running.

You are completely in their thrall from start to finish, fully invested in the simplicity of the story-telling as the actors transport you with them across country and through time. The Lehman Trilogy is a substantial achievement, a beautifully balanced depiction of the role of one family in a much wider history of America. It’s focus on belief – first in God and then in money – argues that the financial crisis was caused by wider society turning its face away from the banking industry, unable and unwilling to comprehend the complex systems it had generated, because all the while the money kept rolling-in that faith was justified. Ultimately though, this brilliant and powerful piece of theatre reveals the sadness of legacy, how easy destruction can be when you reach too high, and the tragedy of three brother betrayed by their own successors.

The Lehman Trilogy is at the National Theatre until 20 October, and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.


Sunset at the Villa Thalia – National Theatre

Ben Miles in Sunset at the Villa Thalia - National Theatre

Going on holiday with your friends can be a difficult business; how do you cope when some of you want to lay on the beach for five days, while others want to see every historic site / market / cobbled backstreet your destination has to offer. The decision to share your few precious days of relaxation with other people can be the most stressful choice you ever make. Imagine how much more awkward that becomes if you strike up a friendship with people you meet abroad and can’t seem to shake for the rest of your trip. Akin to a holiday romance that goes sour, somehow these people just don’t get the hint and return with you, year after year to the same place.

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play Sunset at the Villa Thalia deals with this dilemma but set against the backdrop of Greece’s changing political landscape of the 1960s and 70s. At heart, this is a play about betrayal and how the four main characters undertake acts of treachery partly against each other but primarily against the country they claim to love, its people and ultimately their own middle class notions of propriety. Charlotte and Theo are Brits renting a beautifully positioned but slightly rundown home in Greece. He’s a playwright and she’s an actress, here for the summer where Theo is enjoying a purple patch of creativity. Randomly in town they meet Harvey and June, an American couple with a shady side, she’s a bit of a bimbo, he’s a skilled manipulator, controlling all the events and people around him, but why? In the space of a decade the two couples meet for almost the first and last times, where the clash of morality leads to some uncomfortable self-realisation for the British pair.

The play itself is considerably less heavyweight than its promotion suggests and one that uses the 1967 military coup as a mere backdrop to explore the middle class angst of some holidaying interlopers.  It’s not pure froth by any means and attempts to get to grips with the ways in which external forces have shaped the political, economic and cultural landscape of Greece, but its character-driven focus on the four people onstage (and it only really focuses on two of them properly) means the story of Greece and its people is driven into the background. Don’t be fooled by the serious-looking chronology on their website outlining the 20th Century history of Greece that implies this play will be a Captain Correlli’s Mandolin for the 70s (the book not the awful film), sadly the context is largely irrelevant and we’re left to draw meaning from the primary interaction of British and American protagonists instead.

This is absolutely Ben Miles’s play and he is having a particularly good run of form at the moment. Many among the theatre community will attest that his Cromwell was the equal of Mark Rylance, and also incredibly challenging given he had to perform both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in rep in Stratford, London and on Broadway, and while the shows themselves were a little lacklustre his performance was reason enough to go. Likewise he stole the show in the recent BBC Hollow Crown series with a devilish turn as Somerset intriguing at the court of Henry VI. Here he plays Harvey the insalubrious American who worms his way into the home and lives of the British couple. He has an undefined government role which gives him inside information on a forthcoming military coup, allowing him to make defining economic decisions for the group. For much of the early play Miles makes him an uncomfortable presence, somewhere between geniality and outright threat, we know he’s not all he seems but nothing about his bonhomie betrays any darker intentions. Is it just the awkwardness of a first meeting or is there something more calculating… the ambiguity is delightful.

In Act One Harvey is a man in total control, drop him into any situation and he will manipulate the players to behave as they should. It is his verve that talks his British hosts into buying the villa after sensing the desperation of the Greek owners who are emigrating to Australia for a better life. And knowing what’s coming, he secures the deal for a fraction of what it should be worth. But Act Two, set 10 years later gives him a chance to reveal a different side. Though not sympathetic, he is someone who thinks carefully about the decisions he’s making and checks their consequences – something the Brits fail to do for all their moralising about fairness and decency. Miles’s Harvey at least is honest about his approach to business and for all Charlotte’s disdain her well-meaning actions turn out to be the most thoughtless of all.

Staying with the Americans, Elizabeth McGovern plays Harvey’s wife June, essentially a bimbo who is the trophy by his side. Both spouses are chronically underwritten so we never really understand what attracts the sweet but rather empty-headed June to her secretive husband. And I have to confess to being somewhat perplexed by the casting of McGovern in this role. She’s a fine actress and does her best with it but throughout she betrays a greater intelligence than the character should actually have, one that ultimately makes no sense given her lack of decisive action at any point. McGovern’s June is likeable, sweet and later emits an interesting fear of her husband, but the underlying sense of intelligence McGovern brings to all her characters doesn’t quite accord with June’s actions or her decision to remain wilfully in the dark about Harvey’s true nature.

The British couple are equally frustrating; Pippa Nixon’s Charlotte is the moral guardian of the piece and its sensible centre. More than any other character, she oozes middle class respectability and guilt, showing great deference to the Greek owners of the house she’s renting, while openly watchful of Harvey’s threat to her own comfortable world. The text references an attraction between Harvey and Charlotte which doesn’t really exist in performance, but the scenes between Nixon and Miles as they battle for supremacy and the last word are the best in the production. What is frustrating about her as a character is that she feels like a cipher for the playwright’s own views on the external exploitation of Greece a lot of the time, but despite her evident mistrust of Harvey is very easily talked into buying the Villa Thalia without proper consideration. There is also a prissiness to her that makes her difficult to empathise with in Act Two, so when she’s forced to realise her less than blameless conduct it’s surprisingly satisfying to see her brought down a peg or two.

Her husband Theo (Sam Crane) has pretty much nothing to do apart from set the context for the couple being in Greece – for the creative inspiration – and to be the driving force behind buying the cheap house. Like June, Theo’s character needs more meat, particularly given the supposed attraction between his wife and Harvey which never comes between them, while the two Greek characters, a father and daughter, are little more than pen portraits of people in need, torn between a new life and preserving their historic legacy. Act Two also has two children who have little importance to the plot but the decision to give a pre-pubescent actress a bikini and put her stage brother in small trunks is a controversial and uncomfortable one. Neither of the adult women wears just a bikini and the men reveal no flesh at all, so having the children do it is unnecessary – it would be easy enough to imply swimming in other ways.

Sunset at the Villa Thalia is not an awful show by any means, and in many ways it’s an enjoyable night at the theatre. There’s nothing wrong with a lightweight play that tells a story about the drama between two sets of semi-strangers and offers some enjoyable performances, not least from Miles. But it doesn’t address the issues it claims to, and could have had considerably more depth by better situating the plot in the turbulence of recent Greek history, and by properly fleshing out the characterisation of the secondary players. Campbell’s play may make you think twice before befriending seemingly charming strangers abroad, but it’s not going to teach you much about modern Europe.

Sunset at the Villa Thalia is at the National Theatre until 4 August and tickets start at £15. It’s also part of the National’s Friday Rush promotion releasing £20 tickets for the week ahead at 1pm.


TV Preview: The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II –BFI Southbank

The Hollow Crown Season 2

‘…let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of Kings’, so speaks Shakespeare’s Richard II on his return from Ireland to find his kingdom carried away in his absence. And this is arguably one of the major themes of the BBC’s Hollow Crown season which opened with Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V back in 2012 and returns to TV with a two part Henry VI and Richard III this month. Previewed at the BFI Southbank last week with some of the cast and crew in attendance, the new season opens with a two part digest of Shakespeare’s Henry VI which we watched back to back in a 4 hour marathon with Q&A, and seen in the context of the four earlier productions, emphasises how volatile this period of history was with innumerable deaths, lunges for power and cutting betrayals culminating in, as Richard II described, a series of ‘sad stories of the death of Kings.’

Henry VI becomes King at 9 months old when his father Henry V dies not long after his famous Agincourt victory, and the realm is governed for the next two decades by the Duke of Gloucester as protector. But the adult Henry is too weak to relinquish his Lord Protector and continues to defer decision-making, much to the chagrin of the warring houses of Lancaster and York. In the meantime, Richard Plantagenet, a senior statesman in the House of York decides to press his suit for the monarchy and what ensues across the two plays is a complex and intricate web of political and family intrigue as the young King is unable to hold back civil war – exacerbated by Henry’s loss of the French territories his father fought so hard for – which threatens to consume his entire kingdom.

I’ve never seen a stage version of these plays and the first thing Google tells you is that Henry VI is considered one of Shakespeare’s least successful works and there is considerable doubt that he wrote all of it. In the Q&A held alongside this screening, adaptor Ben Power and director Dominic Cooke discussed the ‘kaleidoscopic’ nature of the original text which they have reshaped and slimmed. The result is a gripping and engaging two part story that helps the first-time audience keep all the key figures straight without too much erroneous sub-plotting. Both parts bristle with danger as powerful men jockey for position as their King stands helplessly by.

Ton Sturridge, in his first Shakespeare role, gives Henry just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence and, interestingly, a fear of trusting his own judgement. He is easily influenced by anyone who offers him counsel, and we see his opinions change with the breeze as different poisons are poured into his ear. Sturridge’s Henry is timid and trusting of anyone who appears to have more political strength than him, and on the few occasions when he seems to be flexing his monarchical muscles his determination is short-lived.  For a character with almost no monologues (in this adaptation anyway) it’s difficult to completely understand his reticence but Sturridge is affecting, not least in Part II when his wish to be an ordinary man is granted but after enduring a grim life in the Tower the chance to be King again brings a moving flicker of hope – the echoes of Richard II are startling. Visually too Henry is shown to be an onlooker always, sitting back as more knowledgeable men debate the issues at court, and also hiding among the trees watching as his own troops fight for him as he has never fought for himself.

There are great supporting performances, not least from Hugh Bonneville as perhaps the only decent man at court, the innocent Duke of Gloucester, loathed only because he has the ear of the King – proof that at this time innocence couldn’t save you from the malice of others. Ben Miles is absolutely superb as the loathsome Somerset, a Lancastrian who intrigues to marry Henry to a French princess only to take her as his own lover and between them manipulate the King to forward the Lancastrian cause – Miles of course was recently a much praised Thomas Cromwell in the stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, a worthy rival to Mark Rylance’s TV incarnation. Sophie Okonedo is equally fantastic as the scheming Queen Margaret, strong, vicious and revelling in the chance to crush her enemies, even actually fighting in the final battle scenes.

Not everything about this works perfectly and while the political scenes are tense and engaging, the numerous battles are somewhat lacklustre and hampered by budget constraints. It’s pretty clear in every single fight scene that there are only about 20 extras which fail to sufficiently convey the thousands engaged in these civil war battles and the notion of a nation in crisis. There’s also some dubious CGI suggesting ships on their way to fight with France, and even worse ‘epic’ music that’s straight out of Hollywood-battle-scenes-by-numbers, and is completely at odds with what the Henry VI plays are actually about. Strip away the sword fighting and all of Shakespeare’s history plays are intimate in scale, about extended branches of the same family rowing about who should be King and this music implies a level of heroism in the battles which didn’t exist in this tawdry and sullied world of political double crossing. As much as these events are nationally affecting, the epic sweep approach seems inappropriate and these adaptations are at their best in these domestic scenes among a tiny elite which just happens to have wider dynastic consequences.

It’s also clear, at times, that these were made before Justin Kurzel’s movie of Macbeth was released, about which I was unapologetically gushing. A game-changer for the way Shakespeare can be filmed (and also on a reasonably small budget), these Henry VI adaptations are being aired in a new context. The problematic battle scenes mentioned above, feel less successful because Macbeth showed how a small cast produced something that is both horribly brutal and still somehow visually poetic. And even away from the battlefields, very occasionally these long adaptations want for dynamism – how many more times do we want to see a group of middle aged men shouting at each other in a variety of grand medieval halls? Is there a more exciting way to present some of this material?

One of the highlights for many will be Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Richard III which follows this two part Henry VI, but Richard actually appears for the first time in Henry VI Part II so we got to see a little of the background to the character to come. The physical traits of damaged arm and twisted leg are present and Cumberbatch will clearly be a desperately evil Richard with the early signs of his bloodlust and coveting of the crown very much in evidence. Initially it’s a little bit panto villain but by the time he delivers the only lengthy monologue at the end of the 4 hours it’s clear his Richard will chills us – ‘he plays a good psycho’ as Cooke and Power joked during the Q&A where most of the talk was about Richard III, much too Sturridge’s irritation who, quite rightly, wanted to focus on Henry. But it’s going to be an interesting season finale when it finally airs.

The Hollow Crown season has been a big success for the BBC and these long-anticipated new adaptations won’t disappoint. Playing these stories concurrently has offered the viewer something you rarely get in the theatre, a chance to see an entire sweep of history and the recurring themes that punctuate these plays – the relationship of fathers and their sons be they monarchs or nobility, the price of wanting and obtaining power, as well its fickle nature as you see prime movers in one play unceremoniously dispatched in the next and a new generation of players assume the political stage. This preview at the BFI certainly got me thinking again about Richard II and all those sad stories about Kings that followed. In the Hollow Crown we find that the old adage is true, power corrupts and whether it be mere soldiers or mighty monarchs nothing will stand in its way.

The Hollow Crown: Henry VI Parts I and II will be shown on the BBC in April to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. This event took place at the BFI Southbank – visit their website for more TV previews. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Bring Up the Bodies – Aldwych Theatre

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.


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