Theatre review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies at the Aldwych Theatre

Royal Shakespeare Company production of
adapted from the book by
Hilary Mantel

Royal Shakespeare Company production of BRING UP THE BODIES adapted from the book by Hilary Mantel by Mike Poulton directed by Jeremy Herrin - Credit: Keith Pattison

For the untrained historian, Thomas Cromwell has always lurked in the shadows of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

In Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up the Bodies, author Hilary Mantel’s skill was to drag him - and his story - back into the light; Mike Poulton’s skill has been to bring Mantel’s Cromwell - along with more than 1,000 of complex plot - to the stage, and allow him to shine.

Poulton’s versions of the hugely popular have already received rave reviews during their run in Stratford. Now at the Aldwych, the Royal Shakespeare Company production looks set to thrill London audiences.

The two plays run just shy of six hours - not that the time is noticeable. The action played out on the stage - at all times overlooked by a giant cross, seemingly carved into the grey set, a constant reminder of the backdrop to the turmoil of the 1520s and 30s - captivates from the moment the cast step foot on it.

And leading it is Ben Miles’ Cromwell: at once a family man, loyal servant and wheeler dealer, he stands head and shoulders above a court which looks down on him. Miles’ Putney boy is just that: his accent, his mannerisms, reminding the audience he is not part of the court he serves - something which can be forgotten when you lose yourself in the books.

Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is a child king desperate for people to love him, whose changeable temperament means the audience can never fully relax, constantly aware the characters’ on stage keep their heads only because of his good will.

Indeed, Wolf Hall’s court has the feel of a playground, with the lords and ladies playing a game - albeit, a dangerous one.

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An aloof Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) is the only character who seems able to play “Creumwell” at his own game - but then we all know how that ends.

Of course, some of the intricacies of Mantell’s brilliantly woven Bring up the Bodies are lost; in particular, the series of events which lead Boleyn to the swordsman on stage seem inevitable, planned - the exact opposite to the book.

But in simplifying the plot, the characters become more vivid, the dialogue sharper and funnier. I would argue Wolf Hall is the better of the two, capable of standing alone - but then I would challenge anyone to watch the first play without feeling the desperate need to see the second.

All the same, Poulton - with director Jeremy Herrin - has created two plays which do justice to, arguably, two of the best books written in recent years.

A must see.

Until September 6

Wolf Hall rating: Five stars

Bring Up the Bodies rating: Four stars