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A CurtainUp London Review
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies
Ben Miles plays the lead character here, that of Thomas Cromwell, the architect of Henry VIII's split from the Church of Rome in order to marry his second wife Anne Boleyn in the search for a male heir. This Cromwell is less well known than his distant relative, the later Oliver Cromwell, who rules England after the Civil War of the mid 1600s and whose Parliamentarians rid England of its king, Charles I. This earlier Cromwell is an important figure in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the English Reformation.
Hilary Mantel acts as Thomas Cromwell's PR representative as she recreates the commonly held view that Thomas was an ambitious and ruthless politician. Instead she makes him very loyal to his employer Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) who founders in failing to secure the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, internationally connected to the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Mantel is currently working on the third book which will take Thomas Cromwell forward into the marriage negotiations for the Flemish queen Anne of Cleves, wife number four.
Much of Wolf Hall is about Thomas and his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey. Both men have relatively humble beginnings for statesmen in the days of less social mobility. The adaptation has plenty of light wit to contrast with the heavy subject matter so that there were times where I thought we might be watching a comedy. The play opens with a stately dance in the manner of the Globe plays, which is wonderful for establishing a sense of period as we try to work out who the shadowy, costumed figures are. Thomas More (John Ramm) gets the opposite of rehabilitation here as we see him flagellating himself and he is an unattractive, pedantic figure, a complete contrast with his canonisation and the rather heroic rendition in the play written by Robert Bolt in the 1960s, A Man For All Seasons.
Lucy Briers' Queen Katherine has a heavy Spanish accent and her daughter Mary (Leah Brotherhead) is a puny but religiously devout princess. Mantel's novel does a good job at identifying the rival factions, Anne's uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (Nicholas Day with a terrible artificial nose), the Duke of Suffolk (Nicholas Boulton) and the Boleyns who have thrown their daughters in the path of the king. Anne (Lydia Leonard) is determined and demanding in her characterisation of the queen who was called The Concubine.
In Bring Up the Bodies we see that Henry's marriage to Anne is already in difficulties as she fails to deliver alive the longed for son. Henry, without the male heir, starts to speculate that he has been influenced by witchcraft and in this world of shifting power, Thomas Cromwell remarkably detaches himself from Anne Boleyn and survives. As he says, "Our requirements have changed and the facts must change with them." Anne loses her head after, along with a number of men, she is accused of adultery and therefore treason, although historians are largely convinced that Anne was innocent of these charges.
I liked Bring Up the Bodies more than the first play, maybe because the history is so well known to me, working as I do in the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich. That's the site of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn in the Chapel Royal, now under a car park on the East side of the Royal Heritage site. There are amusing allusions to modern day London when Stoke Newington, now a part of urban Hackney, is described as the countryside. Although Wolf Hall in Wiltshire was the family seat of the Seymours, the family of Henry's third wife, Jane, the novel concentrates on Thomas Cromwell.
For anyone newer to Tudor history the plays will be an exciting revelation of a decisive time in English history. Bring Up the Bodies is a darker, more political novel as the ramifications of the King's divorce and desperation for a son are crossed by his own biological clock and blame on his wives.
The performances from Ben Miles as Cromwell and Paul Jesson as Wolsey are superb and very human. Nathaniel Parker's King Henry doesn't have red hair which I would have thought was a must and his king is too shadowy a figure for us to be clear whether he is leading reform or just plain expedient. Lydia Leonard's Anne is interesting as her involvement in politics and religion is shown after her marriage, including the malicious treatment of Queen Katherine and the Princess Mary, whereas usually she is portrayed as just a flirtatious woman refusing to bed the king until he marries her. Matthew Pidgeon has an interesting cameo as Eustache Chapuys, the London ambassador of the Emperor Charles V and defender of Queen Katherine.
Christopher Oram's designs are perfect for the period although mostly interiors. We do see a wet journey on a barge on the River Thames which was the M25 of its day for travelling between royal palaces. Sian Williams, long a veteran of the Globe, designs the movement and choreography which add to the feeling of courtliness.
Despite the reservations of an historian, these two plays are a tremendous achievement to bring to the stage Hilary Mantel's "imaginings (her words) the human behind the history of Thomas Cromwell" and I feel privileged to have seen them.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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