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THEATRE REVIEW: Wolf Hall at the RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
There is a pivotal moment in the remarkable journey of Thomas Cromwell from Wolsey’s man to King Henry’s confidant, as depicted by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In Cromwell’s first audience with Henry, he is called to account for a speech in parliament in which he criticised the King’s war with France.
On the stage in the intimate Swan Theatre, Nathaniel Parker’s Henry growls and prowls but Ben Miles’ Cromwell stands his ground, makes his point and counsels the King without fear or compromise. With the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk and other courtiers watching on, waiting for the “butcher’s dog” to incur Henry’s wrath, Cromwell rises. And at that moment, after a breakneck opening in which Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Mantel’s Booker-winning novel barely left time to draw breath, Wolf Hall takes root. Miles is a forceful, commanding presence throughout, as he has to be.
In black boots and tunic and his grey fur the hard man of Tudor politics looks carved from granite. His handsome face may not be one that Hans Holbein would recognise but his strong jaw and fierce, bright eyes communicate Cromwell’s self-assurance and burning intelligence. When Cromwell talks, people listen, even Tudor monarchs.
Miles is magnificent. He is not alone. The spartan, stark set allows the characters full range and the audience not to be distracted from their activity, of which there is plenty. Much of it emphatic and dramatic – the interpretation of the King’s dream and the court play depicting Wolsey’s descent into hell – but just as much is nuance, glances and hidden smiles.
When Lydia Leonard first illuminates the stage as a radiant Anne Boleyn – three parts seduction to one part savage ambition and ruthless determination – much telling action is taking place in the background. As Anne rails against Henry’s inability to divorce Katharine, her ladies-in-waiting are lined up behind telling their own story. Mary, her sister, is all sly grins and sideways looks. Lady Rochford, her sister-in-law, wears an expression of pure disgust, while the “milk sop” Jane Seymour – a suitably ghostly presence, beautifully brought to half-life by Leah Brotherhead – cannot even raise her eyes from the ground. In another key scene – Anne’s banishing of Master Secretary Gardiner from Court – Cromwell and his ward Rafe Sadler exchange discreet smiles behind the King’s back.
Nathaniel Parker’s Henry is another terrific performance. Parker has the stature and gravitas for the confident, carousing and hunting Henry but also the sensitivity to carry those scenes where Henry’s vulnerability shines through. His interplay with Cromwell is particularly mesmeric.
Throughout Wolf Hall (and Bring up the Bodies) three month run at the Swan, it seems unlikely that many in the audience will arrive by accident, having not read Mantel’s brilliant novels. Most will take with them the same questions I did. How could Poulton (with the author’s help) possibly crush 672 pages rich with detail and intrigue into a mere three hours stage time? How could he bring to life characters on whom Mantel lavished extraordinary depth and breadth?
He does it by stripping Wolf Hall right back to its essentials, a series of key scenes that tell Cromwell’s story – at great speed, inevitably – but also add flesh to the key characters, one layer at a time, until a surprisingly and satisfyingly full portrait emerges. It doesn’t work for all the characters of course – Sir Thomas More is a mere shadow of Mantel’s demonic imagining of him and Suffolk is a bit part player.
Others are dispensed with altogether – Cromwell’s nephew Richard and Call-Me-Risley most notably – while large chunks of history – Cromwell’s Putney upbringing, for example – are cast over the side of the royal barge. Other devices are cleverly used to get inside Cromwell’s head – his dialogues with Rafe and Thomas Wyatt, in a confidant role he did not have in the book – while his attack dog French servant Christophe is deployed as Cromwell’s violent alter ego, offering a profane commentary to more courtly deeds. (Pierro Niel Mee is a star comic turn in this role).
Having bought the tickets for Wolf Hall more than 10 months ago, and having listened again to Simon Slater’s brilliant reading of the novel in recent months, I cannot recall ever being so excited about seeing a play. The play had to be breath-taking to meet my sky-high expectations, and it cleared them comfortably. Tonight we see Bring Up The Bodies, and I’m even more excited than I was yesterday.
Beg, borrow or steal tickets for this show. It will be worth whatever you need to do to get there.
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