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Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies

Published May 19, 2014

What’s it all about?

One of the most anticipated London arrivals this summer, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning books retell the epic story of Thomas Cromwell’s life under Henry VIII’s rule, taking audiences from the undignified downfall of Katherine of Aragon to the brutal end of Anne Boleyn.

Under the pacey direction of Jeremy Herrin and with scripts by the king of classic adaptation Mike Poulton, more than 1,000 pages are condensed into six hours of politics, passion, betrayal, incest and, of course, beheadings.

If that all sounds a bit daunting, bear in mind the two plays can be seen on separate days, although for a box set bingeing society I couldn’t recommend seeing them in one day enough. Herrin’s biggest success is creating a double bill that, just like Mantel’s books, will drag you into the 16th century so compellingly, heading back into 2014 will leave you feeling dazed.

Who’s in it?

Taking on Cromwell is an outstanding Ben Miles who rarely leaves the stage in a tour-de-force performance surely ringing Olivier Award bells. For lovers of the books, losing Cromwell’s interior monologue may be exactly that, a loss. However Miles manages to perfectly capture Cromwell’s ambitious and conflicted spirit in an earthy, fearless performance that brings as much fear to proceedings as brilliant wit.

With dozens of characters – roughly 10% of whom are called Thomas – Herrin’s production is delivered with impressive clarity and the supporting cast are equally accomplished from Paul Jesson’s witty Cardinal Wolsey to Nicholas Day’s sneering pantomime villain-like Duke of Norfolk.

Nathanial Parker takes on the titanic role of Henry VIII, bringing a softer edge than you might first imagine to the role of the famously bloodthirsty king; imposing but quietly spoken, fiery but prone to flights of fancy with lusty fickleness in abundance. Playing said fleeting objects of lust are Lucy Briers as a cold, regal Katherine, a flawlessly cast Lydia Leonard as the magnetically attractive but cruelly ambitious Anne Boleyn, and Leah Brotherhead as the simpering Jane Seymour.

What should I look out for?

Miles’ transformative performance. In the face of Cromwell’s rise to power from much-mocked lowly Putney beginnings to Henry VIII’s right hand man, Bring Up The Bodies sees Miles’ performance taken to another level, his face etched with worry as those who have already lost their lives haunt him like devils and angels on his burdened shoulders.

Expect short sharp scenes, with little more than the lighting used to transport the action from damp Thames riverbanks to the grandeur of court. Huge chunks of the book are swept through in this fashion, but elegantly so in Herrin’s deft hands.  

Who was in the press night crowd?

Amongst those swapping the hottest day of the year and some football match or other that was the talk of the interval were Orlando Bloom, the RSC’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran, Hilary Mantel and the show’s director Jeremy Herrin.

In a nutshell?

1,082 pages of prize-winning fiction are elegantly transformed into six hours of thrilling theatre in Jeremy Herrin’s atmospheric and compelling triumph.

What’s being said on Twitter?

@JaneLovell4 The pace of #wolfhall was cracking. Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker were exactly how I had imagined the characters. @TheRSC Outstanding cast.

@Ryan_Man2 Wolf Hall ended minutes ago at the Aldwych. Am gobsmacked at its brilliance. Even this GCSE History flunkie was gripped.

Will I like it?

If you’d like the Tudor Court to be delivered to you on a plush velvet set with grand jewelled backdrops then this may not be for you. Set in a sparse concrete set with minimal props, Poulton’s atmospheric script and the cast’s dense performances are all that are needed to spark the imagination. That and Mantel’s story that feels as relevant and approachable on stage as it did on the page. While we may no longer live in a time of beheadings, passion and grief never date, and for that reason both productions will undoubtedly sweep you away.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are playing until 6 September. You can book tickets through us here.

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