There are two things to love, basically, about Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell series, a trilogy of which two books have been published, which is being made into a mini-series starring Mark Rylance, and which the Royal Shakespeare Company has adapted into a pair of stage plays, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. These two things are Mantel's prose, which can be dense and confusing but I find intoxicatingly rich and thoughtful; and the man himself, Thomas Cromwell. Her Cromwell becomes almost a proto-populist, a self-made man who ascended from the slums of Putney to King Henry VIII's right hand, thoughtful, impossibly brilliant, and brutal. Only one of these things can be translated to the stage with much grace. Luckily, playwright Mike Poulton and the RSC recognized this, and bring to the stage two exciting historical dramas that are unencumbered by attempts to weave in Mantel's narration and anchored by the fascinating and wonderfully portrayed figure of Cromwell himself.
It seems unlikely that these rather long and historically heavy adaptations would have made it to the West End (with a Broadway run to follow next spring) without a Cromwell as perfectly cast as Ben Miles. True, he doesn't quite match the Holbein portrait, nor the frequent description of Cromwell in the books as looking like a murderer. But bulked out by black sixteenth century garb, continually forced to doff his black skullcap, he is a man who can never manage to recede into the shadows like his social superiors think he ought to.
"Why do you have to be such a person?" the Duke of Norfolk complains of Cromwell in the novel (the last cut line I'll quote, I promise). Miles's personhood is equally undeniable, and what we lose from the intimacy of Mantel's prose, we gain back with his expressive performance. Beneath his intimidating appearance and dry wit, it is easy to believe in the loyalty and love that lie at the heart of most of what he tries to do-- and also to see those generous impulses convincingly curdle into something more vicious by the second play's end.
The subject matter is essentially the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife and mother of the future Queen Elizabeth I. This trajectory is shadowed and aided by Cromwell, who escapes the wreckage of the career and life of his former master Cardinal Wolsey with promises to both the King and Anne that he can do what the Cardinal could not: secure Henry a divorce. But as Anne falls out of favor, despite her threats to bring Cromwell with her, he becomes the instrument of her downfall, taking to heart to the lessons learned from Wolsey's fall.
Jeremy Herrin's inventive staging hearkens back to the Shakespearean history play in which these pieces clearly have their roots with a largely bare stage and fluid scenic transitions. Cromwell rarely exits, more often facilitating scene changes by retreating to a downstage corner to bow to whatever member of the nobility is newly entering. Elaborate period dances convey the tense social geography of the court without any dialog at all, and a court play involving a caricature of Cardinal Wolsey and some devils is as attention-grabbing and chilling as its lasting resonance in the plot demands.
The costumes are, as should be expected, quite stunning, and go far to helping differentiate the actors who are playing multiple characters. Paule Constable creates some truly beautiful lighting effects, particularly to highlight the ends of acts. There is live music, which is always exciting, and it features an interesting and effective mix of period and contemporary instruments.
The plays are very much structured as a pair: the first is inconclusive, and the second offers refreshers but no detailed explanations about who these people are or what is going on. Poulton's streamlining of the storytelling is masterful, and he has a keen sense of how to replace and reshuffle minor characters in order to make the best use of his necessarily limited cast. The conflation of several Wolsey servants in early scenes into the lute player Mark Smeaton is a particularly well-crafted example of this. He is less forward-thinking about foreshadowing many of Anne's ladies-in-waiting (with Jane Seymour the obvious exception), resulting in the late introduction of figures such as Mary Shelton and Lady Worcester who offer crucial information but, especially due to the tight doubling of the female actors, somewhat blur together. Poulton also does not trouble himself with leaving room for a part three, which allows him to excise some characters who are featured in the first two novels, but seem destined to come into their own in the third; notably, Thomas "Call-Me-Risley" Wriothesley.
Cromwell is faced with four major counterparts: his sometimes-ally Anne, who simultaneously sees his use as a fellow advocate of Protestantism and as a devilishly effective lawyer, but resents his rise to power and his low class. Sir Thomas More, on the other hand, does not seem to begrudge Cromwell his background, but cannot tolerate his schismatic religious views and his political utilitarianism. Though the men offer frequent protestations of friendship, they are difficult to believe.
In the opposite corner, his more devoted allies: Wolsey (a delightful Paul Jesson) and eventually King Henry, though the latter's childlike mercuriality, wonderfully captured by Nathaniel Parker, is hardly solid ground for building on, and the increasingly large collection of ghosts that drift through both plays are a frequent reminder of what ending up on the wrong side of one of Henry's fancies can mean.
Onstage ghosts can be just plain tacky, but they are masterfully deployed here. Though they haunt the stage, Cromwell himself does not seem particularly troubled by them (or at least, all but one), and carries on fairly casual chats with his former mentor and former enemies. Especially in Bring up the Bodies, they offer the rare opportunities to see Cromwell basically alone. Poulton has, understandably, largely removed Cromwell's family life, though his wife Lizzie, son Gregory, and protege Rafe Sadler remain. By slimming down their roles and removing the arcs they experience in the books, Rafe (Joshua Silver, dry and charming) especially takes on a new and interesting role. Throughout, he is Cromwell's shadow, perennially armed with a ledger and quill and dressed in black or dark green. As the second play went on, I realized he was increasingly filling-- in a quite literal, physical way-- the role that Cromwell once did, standing at the shadows of scenes, so silent and attentive that sometimes it took me until midway through the action to realize that he was even there, watching, listening, taking notes.
I was skeptical of the many upcoming adaptations of Mantel's books, largely because, as mentioned, her prose is so distinctive and powerful. A lesser adaptation would have featured pages of direct address, perhaps characters narrating their own thoughts and actions in an attempt to bring along some of her beautiful words and the fascinating webs of interiority that her third-person perspective allows. In some ways, removing this access turns the plays into a more traditional account of the marriage of Anne Boleyn. But Poulton, Herrin, and Miles have captured the heart of Mantel's Cromwell, and he in turn forms the heart of plays that seem to be made in his own image: fast-paced, forceful, funny, chilling in their depiction of tyranny and shadowed always by the will of an immature and changeable king, the promise that every spectacular rise will be followed by a fall.