The unofficial Nat and Anna Parker fansite

Theatre at its best is an education in itself
The Stage
By Susan Elkin
29 January 2014

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see the RSC’s Wolf Hall and Bring UpThe Bodies , beautifully directed by Jeremy Herrin with script by Mike Poulton based on the two Booker Prize-winning novels by Hilary Mantel.

And like almost everyone else who has seen and/or reviewed these plays I was bowled over by six hours of utterly riveting theatre. Catch them if you possibly can although they’re almost sold out – returns only – until the end of the Stratford run. But surely (surely?) there will be a London transfer?

So how does this feat of astonishingly fine theatre relate to education and training? In several ways I think.

First, leaving aside performing arts for a minute, the plays are a fascinating take on Tudor politics from an unusual angle as we watch the reformation from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, here a flesh and blood man with a heart (often of steel) rather than the pantomime villain he tends to seem in the popular imagination. Well done Ben Miles for a bravura performance and there’s plenty here for A level and undergraduate history students.

The plays also offer a six hour masterclass in acting for anyone studying it vocationally. Almost everyone in the 21-strong cast (outstanding ensemble work too) could teach a drama student quite a lot with Ben Miles, Nathaniel Parker (as a glitteringly charismatic, dangerous Henry VIII) and Paul Jesson as the urbane, pragmatic Cardinal Wolsey at the forefront.

There are exemplary costumes and props (imagine having the resources to create a full size dead deer for a one minute scene!), to study for people working on those and the atmospheric music (by Stephen Warbeck) played by a five piece band above the stage is another complete demonstration of how it can be done.

And then there’s the script itself. It’s published by Nick Hern Books  and is as interesting and educative to read, in a different way, as Mantel’s novels. Poulton has dispensed with the first person narrative and made the history and the storytelling very clear indeed, so the plays can be enjoyed and understood even without foreknowledge of the background. Anyone interested in, or trying to master, adaptation for theatre should look closely at this one.

Also in the published texts are Mantel’s character notes for actors – and they are a fascinating read. What a good idea to include them and what a lot they have to teach. When these plays are eventually licensed for performance elsewhere those notes will help many people.

Mantel, by the way, is speaking about her work and these plays at two events in Stratford on March 22 and 23  – more opportunities to learn.

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