By Joan Redmond
Next month sees the London opening of the theatrical productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the two hugely successful novels by Hilary Mantel that focus on the life of Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell rose to become Henry VIII’s chief minister during the tumultuous 1530s, which witnessed the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn as well as the beginnings of the English Reformation. Mantel’s books have been justly praised, winning almost all the major literary prizes and reinvigorating Cromwell for a new audience.
It was perhaps inevitable that a stage, TV, or film version should be in the works, and it is the Royal Shakespeare Company that has been quickest off the mark with their stage versions of each novel. The productions first opened in Stratford-upon-Avon in the Swan Theatre, and your fortunate author saw both plays across two evenings last month, with Ben Miles playing the central role. Hilary Mantel herself was involved in the novels’ transition from page to stage (something that has apparently delayed the appearance of the third and final Cromwell novel).
Perhaps inevitably, the plays do not capture fully the rich complexity of the novels; there, Cromwell’s inner monologue provides structure as well as exposition to the reader. In the RSC’s Wolf Hall however, through the use of exchanges between Cromwell and Rafe Sadler (some readers may be disappointed to learn that Call-Me Risley has been axed), the story moves along at a smart pace, though with a poignant pause during Cromwell’s early personal tragedies. His relationship with Cardinal Wolsey is wonderfully drawn out, with the cardinal excellently played by Paul Jesson – he (and subsequently his sardonic ghost) is often the light relief here, as Cromwell is drawn into the king’s confidence as he pursues Anne Boleyn. Savvy audience members (and historians!) however will notice Jane Seymour standing in the background, and it is in the second instalment, Bring Up the Bodies, that she assumes a more prominent role.
Where Wolf Hall as a play suffers is that the novel is sprawling, covering a broad time period, and with many characters, a rich tapestry that the stage production cannot reproduce. It does end on a high with the powerful execution of Thomas More and the apparent victory of Anne, but Bring Up the Bodies is easily the more gripping production. That novel itself has a more compact storyline, which translates better to the stage; after spending the previous evening in their company, many of the characters are familiar to us and so the denouement, with the downfall of Anne, is shocking and provides much food for thought both on the fickle nature of power and celebrity and on how relationships between men and women, and indeed relationships in general, can change, and even grow toxic and dangerous.
The RSC has mounted two excellent productions, with Bring Up the Bodies just shading it for this reviewer; certainly, having read the books will be a huge help in following the storyline, but it is not essential. If the audience member has read neither, I would advise going to see the plays ‘in order’ if at all possible. The demand for the London run is a testament to the popularity of Mantel’s novels and of the fascination that Tudor times still exercise in the modern imagination; the RSC has more than done them, and Hilary Mantel, justice.
Joan Redmond, Thomas Cromwell on stage, https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/2014/04/22/thomas-cromwell-on-stage/.
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