By: Aliya Al-Hassan
The last part of Hilary Mantel’s dramatic trilogy feels too safe.
We begin with Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s great fixer and friend, locked in the darkness of Tower of London awaiting his fate. Time then shifts back to the days after Anne Boleyn’s execution in 1526. Henry VIII’s eyes are set on Jane Seymour and an heir, but as time passes, Thomas Cromwell falls out of the king’s favour, misjudging his master and increasingly becoming the victim of the politics and back-stabbing at court. In a final disastrous move, Cromwell orchestrates Henry’s fated marriage to Anna of Cleves and his enemies gloat as Cromwell’s day of judgement rapidly arrives.
At nearly 900 pages, The Mirror And The Light must have been a huge challenge to condense into just over two hours. In contrast to the previous two instalments, Ben Miles, along with Mantel herself, wrote the stage play, rather than Mike Poulton. This may have been where things go a little awry.
This is a huge story to bring to the stage; the politics are complex and the characters are numerous. Henry’s court was vast and it feels like the play is trying to fit too many of them into the story. It takes time to work out who’s who and the action sometimes feels a little cumbersome because of this. Mantel’s prose is verbose and detailed. It needs time to be digested, time that a stage adaptation does not have.
Miles also reappears as Cromwell. In this staging he is haunted by the ghosts of his past; his violent father, his poverty-stricken childhood and Cardinal Wolsey. Miles is engaging and very credible in the character, but sometimes does not feel central enough to the action.
Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII does well in showing the vanity and power-mad character. Parker is increasingly torn as he negotiates how he can live without his trusted aide, but realising that his ego needs to dictate his actions. His narcissism is clear to see, but his appearance is perhaps not quite as bloated and grotesque as it should be.
Olivia Marcus is pouty and shy as Jane Seymour. After her death, Marcus cleverly returns as the young Katherine Howard, echoing how Henry’s past haunts his future. Jo Herbert makes an impression as a bold and mischievous Lady Rochford.
Nicholas Boulton is increasingly over-dramatic as the Duke of Suffolk, becoming a little too comedic. Nicholas Woodeson is calculating and cruel as the Duke of Norfolk and Leo Wan is suitably slippery and sycophantic as Richard Riche.
Christopher Oram’s toweringly impressive set is filled with light and shadow, using huge, brutal, concrete slabs. These are complimented by Jessica Hung Han Yun’s stunning lighting, using haunting and evocative light shafts and a wide palette of colour. Oram’s ornate costumes of rich brocade, furs and opulent velvets also contrast nicely with the stark set.
As in the book, we should feel intense sympathy and empathy with Cromwell; his whole life has been spent trying to please Henry’s every whim and his ultimate reward is death. Unfortunately, this stage interpretation is a bit flat; the great intensity of the relationship between the men feels lacking. Ultimately, Mantel’s powerful prose is not quite realised in this entertaining, but rather safe adaptation.