In Henry VIII’s time incest, murder, plotting and treason were the commonplace. Life was lived with the constant threat of the executioner’s sword.
There must be a huge failing in the way that history is taught in schools because I don’t remember it being half as thrilling as Hilary Mantel’s engrossing take on the Tudors which has just swept into the RSC’s Swan Theatre.
Wolf Hall and its companion, Bring Up The Bodies, are astonishing and extraordinary pieces of theatre. Anyone who has read Mantel’s Booker-winning doorstops will have nothing but admiration for Mike Poulton who had his work cut out adapting the epic for the stage.
Running for a total of six hours this is a landmark production from director Jeremy Herrin, that deserves a London transfer. It’s a cleverly constructed costume drama that presents history for accessible 21st century consumption – so long as you keep reminding yourself that this is Mantel’s version of history and not necessarily historical fact.
It’s easy to watch Ben Miles’ career-best turn as statesman and Mr Fixit, Thomas Cromwell, and forget that the characterization may not be entirely based on reality.
This is a flesh-and-blood Cromwell with a very modern view of life. A modernist and reformist, at a time when Rome still wields power, he carves a place for himself at court, and in history, through ambition, scheming and opportunism.
His detractors abuse him by calling him “Putney Boy”, spitting out the moniker with a large globule of bile, but the blacksmith’s son just shrugs, seeing it as a compliment rather than insult.
The pair of plays revolve around Henry’s attempts to sire a legitimate son and heir.
His first wife, Katherine of Aragon (a beautifully dour and embittered turn by Lucy Briers), only produces a sickly girl, Mary, so Henry begs his advisors to find ways of annulling the marriage so that he can try for better things with the ambitious Anne Boleyn.
Thomas Wolsey is dispatched when he fails to break-up the marriage and eventually it is left to Cromwell to make the divorce work. The only problem is that she too fails to deliver a living son and Henry’s desperation turns to revenge and recrimination.
Nathaniel Parker makes a compelling and unusually vulnerable king who appears to be entirely driven by his need to fulfil the demands of succession. He risks both war and excommunication.
It helps to have a little knowledge about Henry’s reign otherwise it’s easy to lose touch with which Thomas is which (there are seven in the production and, at one point, it becomes a bit of a Tudor in-joke) and who belongs to which household.
But there’s no mistaking the uniformly superb performances from the entire company. Lydia Leonard’s Anne, is as conniving and wily as Cromwell, in her lust for power; John Ramm plays both the traditionalist chancellor, Thomas More, and one of Anne’s purported lovers, Henry Norris, with passion and conviction while Joshua James offers strong support as Cromwell’s clerk Rafe.
But Paul Jesson is just super as the Archbishop of York and Cromwell’s mentor, Thomas Wolsey, who, even after execution, haunts Cromwell and the production like a malevolent spirit. I rather like his Wolsey’s flawed humanity despite his high ecclesiastical office.
It’s an enthralling story with twists and turns that will have you on the edge of your seat. I found myself disappointed when it was all over and can’t wait until next year for Mantel’s concluding part of the Cromwell trilogy, Mirror and the Light.
A trilogy of plays? That would be an event. Mr Poulton had better start sharpening his quill.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies runs until the end of March but tickets are scarce. It is well worth trying to organise yourself to see both performances. Stratford-Upon-Avon is just 90 minutes away and is a wonderful place to visit. There’s the Shakespearean experience to enjoy plus the Cotswolds and Warwick Castle are nearby.
Contact the box office 0844 800 1114 or visit www.rsc.org.uk