Historical Drama: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

Jane Winters reviews two theatrical adaptations of Hilary Mantel's historical novels.

Ben Miles as Thomas CromwellWhatever else you might say about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, they are very long books – the hardback editions total 1,060 pages. Mike Poulton has done a masterful job in distilling these complex and sprawling texts into two, roughly three-hour plays.

Something had to give, of course, and the two major omissions are domestic life – notably Thomas Cromwell’s beautifully drawn family and household – and the febrile religious atmosphere of the period. There are nods to William Tyndale and ‘the gospels’ and two brief but poignant scenes between Cromwell and his wife Liz, but both plays focus on the politics, personalities and paranoia of Henry VIII’s court.

As Cromwell, Ben Miles perhaps lacks the physical presence emphasised by Mantel – a man who had fought, and killed, in bars and on the battlefield – but he captures perfectly the sense of a consummate politician always two steps ahead of those around him. His loyalty to his master and mentor Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) is key to his character and to the sequence of events that ultimately leads to the execution of five men alongside Anne Boleyn. Wolsey, appearing after his death, also provides an insight into Cromwell’s thought processes and, more importantly, his self-doubt. So much of Mantel’s Cromwell lay in his inner dialogue and Wolsey’s ghost is a very effective way of presenting this on stage.

Loyalty is also central to Cromwell’s relationship with his king. Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII can inspire loyalty, even love, but it is also clear what makes him dangerous. He is capricious and almost childlike in his inability to master his own desires and overcome his anxieties. The cast is uniformly excellent and there can be no doubt that performing the two plays back to back is a feat of some physical and mental endurance. Special mention goes to John Ramm, who plays both Thomas More, tragic despite himself, and the unfortunate Henry Norris; and to Olivia Darnley, whose Mary Boleyn and Liz Cromwell have real warmth and charm. It is less easy to warm to the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. Mantel’s Anne is pretty unlikeable – driven, vengeful and cruel – but she is also brittle and lonely.There is less time to explore this side of her character in a drama which is ultimately very much about men.

The staging of both plays is exceptionally good. Wolf Hall opens with a dance, a recurring theme, and the dynamics of the court are immediately apparent. Henry’s infatuation with Mary Boleyn is subtly drawn, but Anne is already a presence. The relationships within this group will alter, but it is the absent Wolsey and More who will die. From the first scene of Bring up the Bodies it is clear that we are in much darker territory. A stag is the ostensible quarry of the royal hunting party, but Anne will soon find herself the target. The major set pieces of the novels are equally well realised. The masque that follows Wolsey’s death, with the Cardinal tormented by demons as he is dragged to hell, feels like the turning point that it is for George Boleyn, William Brereton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston and the pathetic Mark Smeaton. It is reflected in Cromwell’s interrogation of the four latter towards the end of Bring up the Bodies – a truly unsettling scene which contains the seeds of his own downfall. Earlier, Henry’s near-death following a jousting accident reveals precisely what is at stake if Anne continues to fail in her one duty, to produce a legitimate male heir. In just a few seconds those close to the king realise how quickly their lives could fall apart.

Despite the darkness and menace, one surprise was quite how funny Mantel’s dialogue is when adapted for the stage. What on the page seems witty becomes genuinely amusing when spoken aloud. There is noticeably less room for levity as we move towards the climactic executions, but the contrast highlights what is lost. The court has become an irrevocably harsher place. The two plays work brilliantly as adaptations of Mantel’s novels, but also as drama in their own right. The Tudors retain their grip on the imagination.

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies run at the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford, until March 29th, 2014, after which they transfer to the Aldwych in London.

Jane Winters is Reader in Digital Humanities and Head of Publications at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.