Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies, theatre review: 'Exhilarating stage-craft and masterly narrative compression'

5.00

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

One hesitates to use the phrase “a marriage made in heaven” in the vicinity of Henry VIII but that would be a fair way of describing this brilliant union between the RSC and Hilary Mantel.

The Company has just unveiled its epic six-hour stage version of her two prize-winning novels which view the English Reformation and the deadly intrigues of the Tudor court from the vantage point of Thomas Cromwell, the Putney blacksmith's son who rose to be royal fixer-in-chief. 

The marathon press performance began at 1pm and, after a dinner break, concluded at 10pm.  But such is the dramatic skill of the adaptation by Mike Poulton (with whom Mantel has worked closely) and the unflagging power and fascination of Jeremy Herrin's fleet, incisively acted production that, if the final instalment of the trilogy had been completed and turned into a play, I would gladly have stayed up all night.

There are inevitable losses in the transition from page to stage - from the atmospheric richness of Mantel's prose to the flashbacks to formative experiences in Cromwell's past, such as his witnessing, in boyhood, the pitiless auto-da-fe of a female heretic.

But Ben Miles is superlative at conveying the inner complexities of the man – the shrewd watchfulness, the sense of banked-down grief, the little flashes of sardonic humour. David Starkey once described Cromwell as “Alastair Campbell with an axe” but in these plays we get a thoroughly three-dimensional figure.

He's a protagonist who remains bravely loyal to his mentor Wolsey (a witty, worldly Paul Jesson) even when it is risky to do so and is appalled when the latter's memory is mocked in a lampooning court interlude “The Cardinal's Descent into Hell” (staged with vindictive exuberance here). The four noblemen who cavorted as the disembowelling devils will eventually pay the ultimate price for that prank. 

Nathaniel Parker's handsome, strapping Henry VIII subtly shows you a man who can bring himself to believe what he needs to believe but not without some self-pitying twinges of conscience. There's horror and pitch-black comedy in the process whereby, when Anne Boleyn cannot produce a male heir, Cromwell is called upon to assemble forced and false confessions of adultery.

In tense, lethally well-paced interrogations, the Tudor world seems to be offering a terrifying foretaste of 1984 and twentieth century totalitarianism. “You cannot make my thoughts a crime,” argues one of the accused. “But I can, you see”, argues Cromwell. Intentions now can send you to the block.

Lydia Leonard brings out Anne's shrill, unnerving volatility when she's in the ascendant and her peevish snobbery towards Cromwell whom she insists she created. In fact, as her downfall signifies, they are both dependent on the King which is why Cromwell speaks, in a sudden moment of empathy, about how she has been left an “impostor” by the removal of the royal favour.

One false move and it would all be over for him too. The twist at Anne's ending is typical of the exhilarating stage-craft and masterly narrative compression in a double-bill that must surely have a long life beyond Stratford.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits