Writers: Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Of all those who came before and after him, Henry VIII really is the King most people will know and have some sort of opinion about. The fat one who killed his wives, right? Hilary Mantel’s blockbuster Wolf Hall trilogy, and its subsequent TV series, has given millions a glimpse at the world the King inhabited, the women he married, the courts and the wars and, of course, his main advisor Thomas Cromwell.
So we know the outlines of the story before a word is spoken. The King continues on his quest for an heir, marrying then mourning Jane Seymour who died after giving birth to Edward. Cromwell continues his ascent, adding titles, land and power to an already impressive portfolio as the King’s main legal fixer. His work to pair Henry with the German Anne of Cleves catalyses his enemies’ action against him and as it becomes clear the marriage is a disappointment to Henry, we see Cromwell fall out of favour and into the Tower of London before his execution.
The inevitability of what will happen in the final scenes places a burden on the rest of the production to build and gain investment from the audience. It’s not always successfully carried. From a starting point of Cromwell being locked in jail, the whole play is a flashback montage, a highlight reel of his story to tell us how he got into this position. As we progress very quickly under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, we note a lot of talking and scheming but little real jeopardy, intrigue or threat. When betrayal by his friends comes, it’s no surprise to those who know this history, but makes a substantial leap within the world of this play.
At one point his accusers assure him that history is written by the winners, and they’ll take his story on from here. An interesting inclusion in a play that’s smartly full of silly, squabbling, powerful men and a clutch of intelligent, engaging, and downtrodden women.
Ben Miles’ and Mantel’s collaboration began when they shared notes on Cromwell’s character as he played the man in the stage version of the first two books. She fed his insights into Cromwell’s character straight into the book The Mirror and the Light and now they appear in this play with Miles once more taking up the role. It has resulted in a beautifully drawn Cromwell character, with vulnerability, wit and humour. The collaboration also champions Henry, giving Nathanial Parker a chance to show a real period of decline for the King, illustrating his narcissism, selfishness, frailty and ego. These are both scheming murderers you’d love to meet. But it over-rotates on these two to the noticeable detriment of those around them.
While Cromwell and Henry are given depth, nuance and progression, the others feel mostly like tuning forks on the stage. There to be hit at the right time to produce the same note. We have Nicholas Boulton as the Duke of Suffolk for aristocratic bombast, Nick Woodeson’s Duke of Norfolk is constantly angry and plotting, and Matthew Pidgeon’s Bishop Stephen Gardiner is a literally a swivel-eyed villain. This production has substituted excellent costumes, shouting and sneering for the character development of the previous two plays. Beyond a basic idea, thanks to the cultural halo created by the King’s wild life itself and Mantel’s books, the writers can’t assume an audience member will have seen the previous two plays (seven years ago), read the books or know enough about Henry VIII’s court to fill in the essential knowledge of these character’s motivations. In a play of two and a half hours, it’s not too much to ask that the main baddies have a bit of a journey.
Framing it all, the brutalist concrete stage design by Christopher Oram (also responsible for the gorgeous, intelligent, costume design) returns for this final part, starkly effective once more as a box in which to place the court. Dominated by a giant cross and movable ceiling, it comes into its own in discussions among these elites of how to quell uprisings and manipulate all those who threaten their insular world from outside its walls, be they foreign or domestic.
As a study and vehicle for Cromwell, it’s great. The general effect is impressive, but with so much promise unfulfilled in the other characters it prompts a searching question of what might have been.
Runs until 23 January 2022