The Thomas Cromwell who emerges from the Tudor shadows in Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels is a complex man with a chequered past and an ability to live on his wits in troubled times.
On the stage, he’s a compelling character, with a surprising wit – I hadn’t remembered the books as being so funny – but not a man to be taken lightly.
Over the course of six hours, Wolf Hall
and Bring up the Bodies
trace his progress from fixer for Cardinal Wolsey to, after his mentor’s downfall and execution, the chief architect of the king’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon and marriage with Anne Boleyn.
In the first play, he coolly manipulates opponents to achieve the king’s objective and the security of a country beset by foreign enemies but in the course of the second, he learns to enjoy power for its own sake and take pleasure in settling old scores.
Like Henry, he can terrify with a look or a word when he chooses.
The action is fast-moving – as it has to be to cover so much of the ground detailed in the novels - and feels almost Shakespearean in the way one scene shifts into another against a stark set dominated by a brightly lit cross cut into the back wall.
The cross serves as reminder that this was a time of religious upheaval where to be caught with books by the protestant divines on your shelves was to court arrest and worse.
Ben Miles as Thomas delivers a riveting performance. He’s rarely off stage and conveys the intensity of his interior emotions and thoughts vividly yet with minimal flourish.
Somehow we are not surprised when he manages to survive Wolsey’s downfall and the mockery of the aristocratic courtiers who despise him as a blacksmith’s boy from Putney to become the most powerful man in England after the king.
His value to Henry lies in his skill at cutting through knotty problems and, above all, finding find a way for Henry to cast off Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn who, he believes, will provide him with an heir to outrank his and Katherine’s sickly and deeply religious daughter Mary.
This Henry (Nathaniel Parker) is far from the familiar overweight and surly king of the Holbein portrait.
He is lively, musical and charming when he chooses to be but also a man genuinely troubled by religious scruples about the legitimacy of his marriage to his brother’s widow Katherine. Troubled, that is, until Anne also fails to produce the longed-for heir and his affections turn towards the seemingly simple Jane Seymour.
The play’s three queens are strongly contrasting characters: Katherine, (Lucy Briers), the cheerless and righteous Spanish aristocrat; Anne, (Lydia Leonard), cunning, sexy and duplicitous and Jane, (Leah Brotherhead), all apparent innocence in white gowns, allowing Henry’s attentions as her duty.
Six hours pass very easily. It’s impossible not to be caught up in the complicated and insecure world of Henry’s court, where his favour is everything and loss of it can lead to torture chamber or Tower of London, as both Wolsey and Thomas More earn to their cost.
The undercurrent of religious change is ever-present, complicated by intrigue and jostling for power among the various cliques where even the greatest can fall if they lose the favour of the king.
Even Cromwell isn’t safe as Henry makes clear, warning that survival depends on Cromwell’s forcing Thomas More to sign the Act of Succession.
Anyone who loved the novels will not be disappointed by the plays; what is inevitably lost in the translation is more than compensated for by the fast-moving action, enthralling dialogue and above all by brilliant characterisations.
And those who have yet to encounter Hilary Mantel’s creation in its original form will surely be seduced by Mike Poulton’s adaptations. You have a real treat in store.
Tickets are still available for Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, with best availability in July and August. Click here to buy tickets through Saga.