Writers: Hilary Mantel, Mike Poulton
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Up the street from the Aldwych theatre, in Covent Garden, there’s often a street performer dressed as, and acting like, Charlie Chaplin. He’s good too, funny and sweet like the character in The Tramp. He has a bamboo cane and everything. However, given the historical weight of Chaplin and the breadth of his oeuvre, there is no way one can say it is a portrayal of the man. It’s difficult to create a known character on stage as a portrayal rather than an impression, but here in Wolf Hall, throughout the whole three hours and myriad characters we see historical drama interpreted brilliantly, each character well drawn and endowed with personality and insight.
Story wise, we cover most of the high points in the novel by Hilary Mantel. Beginning with the time when Henry wants to divorce his wife Katherine and marry the promising Anne Boleyn. This is a well known plot given the popularity of the book and, of course, the true history woven in through the drama. King Henry VIII wants a son but none forthcoming; disrupts law, government, society and religion to swap wives; Thomas Cromwell pulls every string available to make all this happen. All this set against the backdrop of courtly manners and scandals, religious tumult and an ever present threat of violence.
We have an interpretation of the Cromwell of Mantel’s book here rather than the historical figure. Audience members who have been introduced to Cromwell in Wolf Hall before (and given the popularity of the novel that will surely be a fair chunk) will of course have a notion of who the man is. Ben Miles’ performance focuses Cromwell’s intelligence, slyness, strategic thinking and underlying morality and creates a historical character that will perfectly change any prior conception of the man to fit this new version. Clearly ambitious with power yet flinching physically (though not in spirit) when confronted with it, Miles’ Cromwell is funny and engaging. Although impenetrable to the other characters on stage, he is a wonderfully rounded focal point for this drama.
Though Cromwell has loyalty to Cardinal Wolsey (a great performance from Paul Jesson) as a priority, it is followed a close second to his loyalty to the King. Nathaniel Parker’s King Henry VIII is a swaggering, petulant menace. One who has hunted and “plucked at his instruments” since childhood, indulged in every whim. He has developed into a King with no emotional base apart from insecurity and so when faced with the unbelievable pressure to beget a son to carry on the Tudor line, he morally crumbles. A far cry from the strident man in Holbein’s famous portrait, this Henry VIII is more the possible result if a very serious and considered Spitting Image puppet came to life.
Cromwell sets the standard (never beaten) for all subsequent and modern city-boy spivs, and also more importantly, all machinations between commerce and government in London since. We see a commercial-governmental relationship in plain sight but lording it over everything, letting the drama play out within it is the looming force of industry and religion. Writer Mike Poulton and director Jeremy Herrin manage the rather neat trick of an adaptation from a historical novel that A) is fantastic theatre and B) provides a perceptive comment on modern issues as well. Introduced into Nick Powell’s vaguely industrial soundscape as soon as the audience take their seats. The stage reinforces the idea of industry as a changing force, the only constant in the whole production (apart from the performance of the cast) are the slabs of industrial concrete that make up the bare set. The stage also being utterly dominated by a cross that divvies up the entire visual impact of the stage is a none-too subtle sign of a none-too-subtle influence on the whole world these characters inhabit.
Overall this is, as it was in Stratford, a very fine production. Along with those mentioned, Lucy Briers’ Katherine of Aragon is as dignified and strong a woman as any robbed of her marriage, position and daughter’s inheritance could be. Pierro Niél Mee is hilarious as Christophe, the french thief turned outspoken manservant with an edge, and John Ramm as Thomas More has some serious gravitas, augmented by his shirtless self-flagellation as an introduction. When watching this production, it’s important to bear in mind that it is the first part of a trilogy, and so leaves a lot of the dramatic tension and story unresolved at the end for a good reason. Setting aside the well documented challenges of converting novel to theatre, Mantel, Poulton and Herrin took on the task of presenting one of the most famous literary characters of recent years in another medium. Played with brio and panache, historical drama doesn’t really get much better.
Runs until 6thSeptember