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Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies, RSC Swan Theatre - theatre review
London Evening Standard
Henry Hitchings
9 January 2014

Critics Rating: 5 stars

These stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel's novels offer gripping portrayals of the glorious but utterly ruthless court of Henry VIII

Both of Hilary Mantelís vivid novels about Thomas Cromwell have won the Booker Prize, and now, with a TV version in the pipeline, theyíve been expertly adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton. Working closely with Mantel, he has crafted a rewarding epic in which we see the court of King Henry VIII in all its glory and ruthlessness. Its two parts span six hours, though either could be enjoyed on its own.

When Henry first appears, he is arguing that he needs to split from Katherine of Aragon because she hasnít born him a son. By the end - this could hardly be considered a plot spoiler - he has moved on from her successor Anne Boleyn to the more modest charms of Jane Seymour. Essential to all Henryís plans is Cromwell, whose ascent from lowly beginnings (as the son of a blacksmith in Putney) is grippingly portrayed.

Mantelís Cromwell is a survivor - detached, rigorous and astute. In Wolf Hall he seems discreetly artful. In Bring Up The Bodies his pragmatism takes a much darker turn. Ben Miles captures his coolly watchful manner and is especially adept at suggesting his elusiveness.

Though itís Miles who has to anchor the plays, there are other eloquent performances: Nathaniel Parkerís sturdy yet lively Henry VIII, Lucy Briersís inflexible Katherine, Lydia Leonardís intriguingly volatile Anne. Joshua James brings a lovely poise to Cromwellís quietly competent clerk Rafe Sadler, John Ramm conveys the complexities of Thomas More, and Paul Jessonís Cardinal Wolsey improbably but appealingly calls to mind David Jasonís Del Boy Trotter. 

In each case thereís a sense that the character doesnít think as we do - the Tudor world is remote from ours - yet the writing is accessible, combining wit and humanity.

The staging is fluent and mostly very simple; thereís a lot to get through, and the approach taken by director Jeremy Herrin and designer Christopher Oram is to keep obstructions to a minimum. The politically charged conversations can be lengthy, but thereís always a buzz of brisk physicality. 

The result is meaty, intelligent drama, and great credit must go to Poulton for distilling Mantelís two dense, brick-like novels into a pair of plays that, though undeniably long, are smartly focused. What could feel like a dusty history lesson instead seems a miracle of compression. 

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