Writers: Hilary Mantel, Mike Poulton
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Sequels are tricky things to get right. Whether we’re talking books, films, plays or event the difficult second album. Hilary Mantel clearly struck a winning formula when writing Bring Up The Bodies, winning a Booker prize to add to the one already on the shelf from Wolf Hall. Adapted, created and performed by the same team as Wolf Hall (also playing in rep at the Aldwych) this play narrows the focus in terms of timeframe, characters and plot from part 1, and lets the audience discover a depth to these historical characters that is seriously absorbing.
Examining the court of King Henry VIII in 1535, this middle segment of a trilogy is concerned with the lack of viable heirs to the Tudor dynasty, which leads to the execution of Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Master Secretary, cunning fixer and advisor is at the heart of this one and it is his intellectual agility that drives the plot. Wangling legal reasons why the King can marry again while at the same time revealing his own steeled core, desirous for power and revenge, Ben Miles’ Cromwell unfolds as a darker version of the blacksmith’s boy done good we see in Wolf Hall.
As with any series, there is a form to follow. If Wolf Hall was the introduction and the final, yet to be written, part is the grand dramatic conclusion then Bring Up The Bodies is the major body of character development and exposition. Though there is a fiercely dramatic and gripping conclusion that betters many dedicated courtroom dramas, there is still a feeling that we’re being grandly prepared for a final showdown without an equal payoff. Watching this on it’s own would be like watching Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, without watching the other two as well. Still great, but missing something.
Relying heavily on the continuation of the story from Wolf Hall, we see the King devolve even more into a pressure crushed manchild. When placed in context of the age, the overarching desire to have a male heir is understandable. The King’s pressure driven ambition comes with a huge cost. He’s clearly an intelligent man with very many fine qualities. But these all are sacrificed on the alter of male issue. As we progress we see him externalise blame to his wife, court and God. He reveals himself to believe in the ultimate position of “The King” to such an extent he loses track of what it is to be a man. “They say Thomas Wyatt writes better verse than I do, and I’m the King”.
Cromwell himself doesn’t change too much, just reveals more of himself. In Wolf Hall we see his ambition for power. Here, we see the lengths he will go to for revenge for the death of Cardinal Woolsey, destroying the five men who made fun of the Cardinal in a play. By fortunate coincidence, this aligns perfectly with the King’s wish to be rid of Anne Boleyn, his new wife. In explaining the plot to accuse and condemn to death these five men and the woman for adultery, he is careful to have his team put out the message that it is the king and court’s wish, not his own for vengeful purposes. It’s this self-awareness and strategic planning that make the character of Cromwell so compelling and Miles’ adds to his portrayal of the man from the other play to make this most dangerous aspect of his character come to the fore. As we learn, Cromwell will “never forget myself” so this side is always there, only now when his desire for power and revenge are nearing completion does he allow this side to be revealed.
This is a play for those who enjoy webs of intrigue and darkness. As with the concurrent production, transitions between time and space are seamless. There is more shadow in this, with everyone, friend or enemy, emerging from the shadows at the wings every time they come into play. With most of the play set against a giant illuminated cross in the same industrial set as Wolf Hall, religion is again a powerful presence. Here though, we get the message that even though religious fervour shines brighter, the characters ramp up their bold defiance of it as a guiding force.
Familiarity with Wolf Hall will change this into a play different to what it could be if approaching it with no prior knowledge. It would work well as a standalone piece, presented in vacuum, but to get the full, majestic experience of Mantel, Poulton and Herrin’s Bring Up The Bodies, get to know the characters first.
Photo: Tristram Kenton | Runs until 6thSeptember