Mike Poulton’s theatrical adaptions of Hilary Mantel’s two Man Booker prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, have consistently received five star reviews from newspapers and critics alike since it debuted in Stratford-upon-Avon last December. These productions moved to Aldwych Theatre in May and even though, due to sheer popular demand, it has been extended to the start of October, there are a very limited number of tickets left for Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. This just illustrates how quickly word spread that this was the show to see this year (if you’re lucky enough to find tickets, that is.) And I was a lucky one. On Saturday afternoon, I sat myself down in the stalls for the matinee performance of Wolf Hall and witnessed Henry VIII’s Tudor court come to life before me…
As I took to my seat, the sparseness of the staging took me by surprise. There were no colourful tapestries hanging, no candlesticks, no engraved wooden panelling acting as walls, no roaring fireplace; it completely lacked any aspects of Tudor buildings. Instead, audiences are confronted with what seems to be blank dark stone flooring and thick matching walls. High above the stage hang metal crates, bound together. The setting felt cold, dark and uneasy; all the characteristics you would expect from the events that occur during Wolf Hall.
And so the performance began. After a storming entrance and a bit of dancing from all of the cast, the play begins with Cardinal Wolsey speaking to his protégé, Thomas Cromwell, about the King’s need for a male heir. This is the late 1520s, Henry VIII is getting on a tad, and his wife, Katherine of Aragon, even more so. Only one child has been produced from their long marriage, a girl called Mary, and Henry is getting increasingly anxious about the succession to his throne. However, this is not the story of Henry VIII, his pursue of Anne Boleyn and the ‘King’s Great Matter’. No, this is the story of Thomas Cromwell, a ‘blacksmith’s boy’, and how he got absorbed in the court antics of the day which have defined our history ever since.
From what I have read, Ben Miles has not received one bad review for his portrayal of Cromwell, and why would he? He is the stand out character of this production. Cromwell, who is sometimes seen as the ‘arch-villain’ in history books, is displayed in a completely different light in this. With his confident cockney accent, demure clothes and relaxed demeanour, Miles creates a new perspective of the man from ‘humble beginnings’, who made it all the way to the King’s ear. Miles does not play Cromwell as a man who is advantageous or determined for power; he is calm throughout, never raising his voice, and even becomes almost likeable.
As an audience, you witness how Cromwell is forced to watch his master (Wolsey) be stripped of his position, and how those around him become increasingly trusting and dependant on him, including the King himself. Although some critics have commented that the scene where Cromwell learns of his wife and two daughters’ deaths is too quick to fully appreciate Miles’ touching reaction, I disagree with this to a certain extent. Yes, it would be easy to extend the scene somewhat further to allow Cromwell to grieve more, but the fact that he is forced to quickly ‘bounce back’ from his personal loss in order to deal with the problems at court illustrates just how politically demanding this particular period of time was. Certainly no one can doubt the sympathy the audience feel towards Miles during his poignant expression of grief for his character’s wife and daughters.
What struck me from the outset was how funny this production was. With the knowledge of the amount of arrests, executions, rivalries and back-stabbings that occurred during this time period, I did not expect Wolf Hall to make me laugh out loud as much as it did. Paul Jesson (Cardinal Wolsey) and Ben Miles deliver their one-liners naturally and with such assertion, it’s as if they have never said them before. Pierro Niel-Mee’s character, Cromwell’s mischievous French servant Christophe, brings light relief to more serious scenes with his bold lines and drunken ramblings, whilst Daniel Fraser acts as Cromwell’s adolescent son, Gregory, with great naivety to the complexities of the political age and his father’s involvement in court dealings.
A particular mention must be made about Joey Batey, who plays court musician Mark Smeaton. Some may recognise Batey from last year’s BBC historical drama The White Queen, where he played Henry VI’s frightfully cold son, Prince Edward. However, in this production, he plays Smeaton with great wit and ease. Other audience members may be shocked to find that this is Batey’s theatrical debut, as he also brings amusement to the play when being teased by risqué Christophe or when happily flitting around the stage after joining the royal court to entertain Anne Boleyn. Although we do not witness any romance appearing between his character and Henry’s second wife, Batey successfully makes inclinations towards his growing favour for the Queen with his subtle glances and pauses. Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn) cleverly ignores Smeaton’s presence when he is sent to her household, and continues to forget the musician’s name when courtiers make reference to him or his music. Onlookers can only laugh as neither characters realise what lies ahead for both of them…
Lydia Leonard plays a feisty and determined Anne Boleyn. Although we initially witness Anne dressed as Perseverance at a court dance and receiving attention from the King, that is all the audience see of their flirtation. All of the audience’s knowledge of their relationship and how Henry pursued Anne is behind closed doors; we simply listen in on the gossiping from courtiers and learn about how far their relationship progresses. When we finally meet Anne, Leonard dictates the scene and all of the characters around her. At this point in the story, Anne has moved into the royal household and the question of whether Henry is able to annul his current marriage is already being discussed. Everyone around Leonard reacts to her deepened tone of voice and self-assurance. Leah Brotherhead (Jane Seymour) responds to Anne’s presence so much so that she can only cower in a corner in fear of the not-yet Queen.
Part of me believes there should have been more vulnerability to Anne’s character, along with a bit more ‘sex-appeal’. Anne is strong-willed for sure in this production, but lacking the supposed charm and allure that contemporary accounts suggest Anne had. The way Leonard also kept on purposely saying Cromwell’s name in a strained and unnecessary French accent was also quite irritating (but that is possibly no fault of the actor, as she was probably directed to pronounce it in such a way).
Of course we cannot write a review and miss mentioning Henry VIII altogether. Nathaniel Parker displays Henry’s desperation for a male heir and his belief in his faith with brilliant sincerity. Yet, I believe Parker is at his best when he is stripped bare of his jewels and clothes, and portrays Henry at his most vulnerable (which is when he is coincidentally in his nightdress). Henry’s dreams of his dead brother, Arthur, haunt him, and his doubts surrounding Anne’s fidelity and her miscarriage all lead Henry to question his actions. Parker illustrates how dependant Henry became on Cromwell in a kind of child-like way, and you genuinely feel for Henry when he expresses his fears that maybe he has gone too far…
It is hard not to make note of every cast member, and I will restrain myself from commenting on every character. Oscar Pearce plays George Boleyn as a stupid and rash character; you expect him to stomp his feet and run off stage to his father at any given moment if he doesn’t get his own way (I think he may have actually stomped his feet at one point if I remember correctly). Joshua Silver, who plays Cromwell’s secretary Rafe Sadler, has great conviction in his speeches and possesses the same air of calm that Miles has when playing Cromwell. Lucy Briers holds her place firmly as the King’s “true wife” Katherine of Aragon, but doesn’t play Jane Boleyn’s character with as much sentiment. Nicholas Boulton convinces audiences of his great friendship with the King with his portrayal of the Duke of Suffolk (he’s one of the only characters who can naturally call the King ‘Harry’), whilst Nicholas Day plays the ‘pushy uncle’ in full force as the Duke of Norfolk.
Although Wolf Hall is over three hours long (including an interval), at no point did I feel this production was dragging at all. Every scene had a purpose and helped build momentum to the finale. I only wish I could have acquired tickets for the evening performance of Bring Up The Bodies as I was left wanting to watch the drama of 1536 unfold even further.
There are a very limited number of tickets left for Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. The season ends on 4th October, so get them now before they’re gone! Tickets are priced between £10 for on-the-day tickets and £112.50 for premium seats.
Photo credits: Jessica Hope ©