Tag Archives: RSC

Cymbeline – RSC at the Barbican

cymbeline-royal-shakespeare-company

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most derided plays, coming quite late in his career (1609) and offering a top-heavy mish-mash of subplots that are never satisfactorily resolved. In some ways it’s like a greatest hits album of his most recognisable plots and techniques cherry-picked from his earlier successes, but thrown together in a bag and shaken about to form another story entirely, one that unfortunately is far less than the sum of its parts.

There’s some star-crossed lovers right out of Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), a maligned female reputation which questions her virtue like Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9), a warrior King who struggles to trust his children (King Lear, 1605-6), some lost siblings and a chance for some female-to-male disguise like Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and people escaping into the magical woods where they meet some common folk as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6). By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare clearly knew what his audience enjoyed but the jumbling-up of stories with very little poetry is one of his more lacklustre and dense efforts.

Although rarely performed, London has welcomed two major productions in a matter of months; The Globe’s modern reinterpretation which has set the seal on Emma Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director, and the RSC dystopian production which arrived in London at the end of October for a two month run and recasts the titular King as a Queen. Cymbeline is the not-so-straightforward story of an ancient British princess called Innogen who has married her lover Posthumus against the wishes of her mother Cymbeline who then banishes Posthumus to Rome. Here, he enters into a bet with Roman, Iachimo ,who tricks him into believing Innogen has betrayed him.

Meanwhile, Cymbeline is guarding the throne from internal plotters while facing a possible Roman invasion. Meanwhile out in the woods, her two lost children are being raised by a woodsman unaware of their royal status. As Innogen is accused by her husband, she decides to dress as a man and sets off in search him, leaving the three sets of characters to mix at a volatile time for Britain.

The RSC’s production is a pretty mixed affair and in many ways it makes a fairly decent job of envisaging what is a poorly constructed play with relatively little character depth. It starts off really well and the first half rattles along quite efficiently and with a decent amount of tension as the drama of Iachimo’s attempts to upset Innogen’s marriage creates plenty of intrigue and villainy. If you’ve seen enough of the Shakespeare plays listed above then you’ll pretty much know where all of this is going but its credit to Melly Still’s direction that you remain engaged and entertained nonetheless.

Much of this is due to Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Iachimo who manages to avoid becoming a finger-drumming panto villain as he develops and executes his plan to smear Innogen’s reputation. When he meets Posthumus in Rome he is every bit the swarve Italian, impeccably dressed and coiffured, and casually bantering with his attendants. Confident he can seduce Innogen before he meets her, he is pleasantly surprised to find her beautiful but also intellectually his equal, and you sense in Johnstone’s performance that Iachimo begins to fall for her, eager to fulfil the bet and keep her for himself. It adds unusual depth to the scenes between them and like Kinnear’s Iago at the National a few years back you might will him to succeed.

One reason for this is the less successful relationship between Innogen and Posthumus upon which much of the play hinges, and here the company fail to really sell this at the start so the audience never quite believes in their passion for one another. Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumus is an underwhelming presence, never seemingly a physical or intellectual match for Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen, and so easily led during his exile that it’s difficult for an audience to generate any sympathy for the lovers which fatally undermines the dynamic and drive of the play.

By contrast Cullinane makes for a modern and intriguing heroine, determinedly knowing her own mind and, despite being heir, she is happy to go against her parent’s wishes. The teasing relationship Cullinane’s Innogen develops with Johnstone has considerably more depth than the flatter romance with her husband which adds considerably to the tension in the attempted seduction scene giving it a ‘will they, won’t they’ momentum. But throughout Cullinane balances the emotional introspection as Innogen contemplates life without her lover, with the anger and frustration created by being wrongly accused.

Among the rest of the cast there is a mixture of ability, ranging from those who speak the verse very naturally to those who struggle to find its rhythm, and none of this is helped by the characterisation which often lacks depth – although this is Shakespeare’s own fault. And there are some problems with projection which make it difficult to hear even at the back of the stalls so it’s probably considerably worse in the balcony.

To say it’s difficult to care is an understatement, and even a fair amount of gender-switching which works perfectly well, isn’t used to any particularly effect. Gillian Bevan makes a good fist as warrior queen Cymbeline but spends most of the production stomping around in Ugg boots and a dressing gown, while her second husband, the evil Duke, is given a nice platform by James Clyde but somehow the machinations to overthrow the monarch are never clearly articulated in this production, especially in the first half where the romance takes precedence.

Even Anna Fleischle’s visuals are a little inconsistent which adds to the confusion; The British court seems somewhere between a post-revolution dystopia and a steampunk fantasy world. The walls are covered in graffiti and the place looks quite beaten up, and the costumes suggest a court fallen from its previous glory, including a ragged denim outfit worn by Innogen whose ruffles and puffs are tattered and torn, while the Queen struts around in her nightie. Simultaneous scenes in the woods borrow from the Lost Boys while Rome is firmly set in the 1980s with a Miami Vice look that celebrates slicked back hair and blazers.

It’s actually all a bit confused which makes it much harder to place, raising considerably more questions than it answers – why is Britain in a post-holocaust state and not Rome, what possible major even could have decimated one country without affecting a reasonably near neighbour? It would be perfectly sensible if Britain was pre-civilisation and Rome was on its way as a conqueror but it’s clearly meant to be after some kind of war-like disaster so the reason for this difference is a little vague.

And towards the end as much of the action decamps to the forest the whole things gets a bit Peter Pan with vine trails and hideaways that undermine the danger of a fragile community fending off attempted regicide and succession issues, and starts to feel more like a cheery frolic as families are reunited and political issues resolved. Towards the end, after nearly 3½ hours the whole thing starts to feel very laboured as all the threats dry up and the tension created by Iachimo’s villainous plans splutters to a weak conclusion.

Again much of this is Shakespeare’s fault because Cymbeline is a hotchpotch of half realised plots and poorly delineated characters. Initially the RSC’s production manages to paper over some of the cracks with a show that starts strong, with some very good performances that add layers to the characters, as well as an intriguing vision of a society in decline. Yet, this production feels sluggish and unconvincing in the second half as the plot becomes rather flabby and the tone shifts from political intrigue to fantasy adventure romp which all feels rather thinly conceived. A decent effort by the RSC but it’s not going to salvage Cymbeline’s reputation as a play or have you hurrying to see the play again in the future.

Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17th December. Tickets start at £10 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  

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Richard II – The Barbican

Richard II by Alastair Muir for RSC

At the start of a new year it’s traditional to look to the future, to think about self-improvement, make resolutions and generally hope for better things. It will seem somewhat strange then that my first theatrical review of 2016 is looking back to a production that first took place over two years ago. The re-arrival of David Tennant and the RSC’s 2013 version of Richard II is something of a special event, not only as part of a complete cycle of Shakespeare’s histories currently in performance taking audiences from said Richard to Henry V, but is an unusual thing in theatre- a repeat. Now, we are used to seeing transfers which means you can see the same play from somewhere like The Young Vic, National Theatre or Royal Court or beyond in a bone fide West End theatre a few weeks or months later. There are tours too, that begin and end in London which allow you to see the same show several months later, and revivals occur all the time with new casts, directors and designs that give a new twist to a well-worn classic, but to take a play that completed its entire run years ago and reconvene many of the original cast within the exact same production values is a rare thing indeed.

One of the joys and frustrations of theatre is that it only exists for a moment before it’s gone, even the National Theatre Live people have quite sensibly refused to release their cinema recordings on DVD or download to preserve that ‘one night only’ feel. But imagine if you could do this all the time, what productions would you replicate in their entirety, just to see them again one more time? Alan Rickman and Lindsey Duncan in the 2001 production of Private Lives would be high on my list, Tennant’s Hamlet of course and I could easily see the recent A View from the Bridge countless times. You could also pick something you missed out on first time around, that hot ticket that everyone got but you, or even something from long ago that wistful theatre critics remember fondly. What the RSC is doing at the Barbican however is far more practical, by giving proper context to a particular cycle of plays it will help the audience understand the meaning and consequences of that period of history, and offer an almost unique rep season as a fitting start to this 400th anniversary year.

Undoubtedly, this production of Richard II was one of the best things I’d ever seen in a theatre and its reprise certainly lives up to my memory of it. There have been just enough changes to keep it fresh however and although Tennant returns to his original role, as does Oliver Ford Davis as the Duke of York, Jane Lapotaire remains the Duchess of Gloucester but Sam Marks is promoted from Bushy to the Duke of Aumerle. New members include Leigh Quinn who replaces Emma Hamilton as the Queen, Michael Pennington’s John of Gaunt has become Julian Glover, while chief agitator Bolingbroke sees Nigel Lindsay morph into Jasper Britton.  Design, direction and costumes are pretty much the same although two scenes configure slightly differently to how I remember them – a moment in which Richard descends from above on a platform and later mirrored by Bolingbroke as Henry IV don’t occur, and instead Richard’s is seen to slightly rise on the platform, while Bolingbroke does not move. This removes the religious, king-anointed-by-God imagery of the earlier production but presumably there is some health and safety reason for it not being included this time. Likewise the prison scene which took place in a trap door on the stage floor is replaced by a roll on board on which Richard sits in chains, but this change happily makes no difference to the power of the scene.

Seeing something a second time allows you to notice things that may have eluded you before, and Greg Doran’s production seems more openly sympathetic to Richard as a wronged man than it previously appeared. There are few redeeming features in Shakespeare’s presentation of Bolingbroke but Britton adds a touch of the pantomime villain to him, openly hostile to Richard’s orders from the start and with a huge chip on his shoulder. When Lindsay was in the role the character had a more thuggish approach but his claims that his invasion were solely for the purposes of honour in regaining his lost lands rang truer than they do with Britton’s interpretation which is an interesting point of comparison. Britton also makes Bolingbroke grubbier and less tender to the defeated Richard than Lindsay had been, as though his schemes run far deeper than he wants the court to believe, nicely emphasised here as they back away into the shadows as the consequences of his commands are discovered. It must be strange to take-over a central role in an established production so Britton is commended for bringing his own interpretation to it, not least for covering up sportingly when he accidentally knocked a piece of metal edging into the front row of the audience.

Leigh Quinn was a less successful exchange as the Queen, lacking the solemnity of her predecessor Hamilton. On learning of her husband’s capture and deposition she talked of woes but seemed entirely untouched by them or by their final parting which was a shame. Julian Glover, however, equals Michael Pennington as the melancholy John of Gaunt who witnesses the death of his brother and the exile of his son early in the play. The central triumvirate with Lapotaire and Ford Davis as the surviving Aunt and Uncles to King Richard add a lovely gravitas as they watch the next generation fail them. Credit also to Sam Marks who made an emotional transition to the role of Aumerle full of feeling for his King and remorse for the various betrayals he later commits to save his own life.

Tennant’s performance is every bit as good as it was in December 2013 balancing the initial ethereal god-like presence with a growing sense of his own humanity. Particularly interesting this time around was how rapidly Richard goes from never being touched – and when a subject lays a hand on him it is met with gasps from the court – to needing the physical proximity of others, to having no control whatsoever over his own body and its condition. Through the production and the torments it lays on him, Richard becomes less and less a deity on earth and more an unprotected man clinging to the little life he is allowed. Once again Tennant’s descent from regal to despondent is charted brilliantly, culminating in an especially moving scene as he publicly renounces the crown which visibly appears to cost him every bit of strength, as he bows to the inevitability of his own demise. Seeing this again, Richard II could almost be recategorised from history to tragedy as Richard’s fatal flaw (a failure to see and act clearly) signal his certain end as they do Macbeth and Hamlet. The rousing standing ovation that greeted the curtain is assurance that the Barbican audience loves Tennant as much as they do Cumberbatch.

Greg Doran’s production thus makes a welcome return to the Barbican for the next few weeks and while the cavernous stage seemed to drown last year’s Hamlet, here it is amply filled with suspicion and politicking. There were only three chances to see this play without booking the entire cycle (Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two (with Anthony Sher) and Henry V) and they all took place on the weekend just gone, but all the plays in this season have earned excellent critical reviews, so it’s worth seeing the lot, or chance your arm on the days Richard II is playing for a last minute return. The whole thing then transfers to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York from March. There will be plenty of new things to come in 2016, but as a year of Shakespeare celebrations begin, it’s a delight to look back to one of the best productions of recent years.

Richard II is part of the Shakespeare’s King and Country History Cycle that’s running in rep at the Barbican until 24 January before moving to New York from 24 March. Advanced tickets for the Barbican are only bookable for all four plays although day seats may be available for individual performances.

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Death of a Salesman – Noel Coward Theatre

Classic American theatre seems to be riding high in the West End at the moment with some stellar productions achieving critical acclaim and winning handfuls of awards. With the Young Vic’s productions of A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson heading to New York in 2016 and the monumental A View From the Bridge with Mark Strong juggernauting into the West End and now heading to Broadway from October, not to mention Damien Lewis’s appearance in American Buffalo, clearly London is offering leading interpretations of US theatre. In the year of Arthur Miller’s centenary there has probably been no better time to see top-notch productions of his famous plays including the West End transfer of the RSC’s Death of a Salesman.

Willy Loman is a travelling salesman living in an increasingly urbanised district of New York, returning home one day to find his two grown-up sons have come to stay and long-held frustrations soon bubble over. But Willy’s grasp of time has begun to slip meaning he frequently slides back and forth between the present and a variety of happy times he recalls raising his favourite son Biff, a one-time High School American football star who squandered any promise he once had. Biff, now 34, is home to try and make his latest big idea happen, going into business with his brother Happy, if only they could raise the capital. Happy is an inveterate womaniser constantly in the shadow of his elder brother, even though he has fulfilled all the dreams is family once had for his sibling. Over the course of 24 hours the Loman’s must face the truth about themselves and each other before a very different future is left open to them.

The critics have been incredibly enthusiastic about this production and while I wouldn’t entirely disagree with them, seeing a play for the first time is a different experience. Comparison with the recent multi-award winning version of A View from the Bridge, which I also saw for the first time, at the Young Vic (and again at the Wyndhams) means Death of a Salesman isn’t quite in the same league. So while the main critics may say this is the finest production they’ve seen, I felt it took a little too long to get going and to establish the underlying tension within the family, whereas it was immediate in A View from the Bridge and the inevitability of the outcome drove the action more obviously. I’m splitting hairs of course, we’re talking about the difference between a 4 and 5 star production but it’s worth considering how consistent critics are in how they award those coveted marks.

Greg Doran is pretty good at creating tension and drive within (overly) familiar Shakespeare plays and once you start to get a sense of who everyone is the pace picks up nicely, wringing engaging drama from the events of this day. The movement between past and present, as Willy’s mind re-enacts key moments of contentment with his, then, teenage sons is cleverly handled at the front of the stage, while the actors convincingly offer lighter versions of their older selves. Design and projection are cleverly incorporated into Willy’s memories, offering a more pastoral and idyllic feel to the past when a large tree cast a light shadow on the Loman house and the density of the surrounding apartment blocks becomes transparent, suggesting the light and space that once existed in this place. How much of this romantic past is true the production doesn’t entirely explore, however, and although it seems Miller hasn’t clarified it in the text, it might have been interesting to make these sequences even more dreamlike and suggest Willy is taking refuge in an idealised version of the past that never existed. What if Willy wasn’t the loving father he’s suggesting in these flashbacks and the tension with his sons in the present reflects his failure and their unwillingness to forgive?

Antony Sher’s performance is very good, playing Willy as a man unable to keep the threads of his life together and struggling to deal with the changed circumstances that time has brought. Like his son, when once he was the ‘star player’ in the office, he can no longer compete with the younger generation and new techniques that drives his work as a salesman. Those difficulties peak in repeated confrontation with his sons and Sher seems constantly on the edge of agitated outbursts which seem to be as much about the frustrated inaction of his children as his own failure to be the man he once thinks he was. There seem to be a number of ways to play Willy, and Sher goes for anger but perhaps doesn’t quite give enough sense of the loneliness of his job or evoke too much pity from the audience.

Biff is possibly more interesting a character than his father whose failures he somehow mirrors. Alex Hassell gives him an interesting air of disappointment and pain at being unable to fulfil his family’s early expectations of him. Biff has gone from job to job, never settled down and now at 34 is finding doors closing very quickly. There’s an interesting cross-over with Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof whose early sporting career was also curtailed by the same self-destructive impulses that drive Biff to unnecessarily destroy opportunities that come his way. Brick also has a similarly love-hate relationship with his father where the two can only exist when they’re not together, because home reminds Brick and Biff of how much they’ve lost.

Harriet Walter gives good support as matriarch Linda, a classic Miller woman, like Beatrice in A View from the Bridge, who stands back and almost allows events to unfold despite realising the consequences. There is a resignation in Walter’s performance and devotion to her husband’s needs that means she will sacrifice seeing her sons to maintain his happiness – again as Beatrice rejects Catherine to retain Eddie.  Happy Loman meanwhile (Sam Marks) is looking for his family’s attention and clearly his frequent affairs are a manifestation of the anonymity and lack of love he feels at home.

The open-fronted two story house design works fairly well, particularly for the first half where most of the scenes are set in the kitchen or bedroom, but it dominates the stage so entirely that it crushes a lot of external scenes into the small space at the front of the stage, which is harder to see from the upper levels of the theatre. While the looming house is a constant reminder that these people can never escape the way their family name and shared history defines them, something a little more flexible, such as a rotating stage would have given them more space to create offices and restaurants as characters interact with the wider world, and offered a little more variety in the visuals.

Death of a Salesman is a classic of American theatre and arguably Miller’s most famous play. This RSC production certainly gives the audience plenty to think about as it examines the curdling of the American dream. As Willy and Linda edge closer to finally owning their own home, they realise the thing they’ve worked their whole lives doesn’t mean as much as it once did. While this may not quite have that epic sense of inevitable tragedy offered by Ivo Van Hove’s stripped back A View from the Bridge, this version of Death of a Salesman examines many similar themes. Reasonably priced tickets are available from Last Minute and it’s worth catching before the run ends; it’s the second best Miller production you’ll see this year.

Death of a Salesman is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 18 July. Tickets start at £12.25, while Last Minute also has tickets for £22.50 for the Upper Circle. 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.


Wolf Hall – Aldwych Theatre

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.


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