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.