Theater Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently performing adaptions of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Written by Mike Poulton, with the approval of Ms Mantel, each play runs about three hours, and are performed at the Swan Theatre, the RSC’s smaller venue with about 650 seats.

These two novels tell the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fixer and right-hand man. If you remember your history classes, Henry VIII was the one who had six wives, and Cromwell was instrumental in assisting Henry in obtaining the proper dispensations from the Pope so he could move on with legitimacy. The two novels show Henry VIII having his marriage to Catherine annulled, because he does not yet have a male heir, marrying Anne Boleyn, then becoming infatuated with Jane Seymour and casting off Queen Anne (after she, too, fails to produce a boy child).

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Wolf Hall, the novel, starts with Cromwell’s childhood, but the play begins when Cromwell is working as Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary. The first half of this play mostly shows how Cardinal Wolsey manages the King’s affairs, and ends with his death. After the intermission, Cromwell rises in power, and Sir Thomas More ends up in prison, then is executed, after being tried for treason.

Bring Up The Bodies covers the period when Henry VIII becomes infatuated with Jane Seymour, a mousey lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn. Henry acts like a smitten schoolboy, and comes up with an excuse to wriggle out of his marriage to Anne. Eventually, several people in her entourage are accused of sleeping with her, and are executed, as is Anne herself.

It’s a daunting task to bring these two dense novels to the stage. I confess to not having read the books, which put me at a disadvantage; it seems that much of the audience had read the novels, and laughed at certain bits that I didn’t find funny. And not having read the novels meant that I wasn’t able to fill in the gaps that left me wanting more, at least during Wolf Hall.

The first play covers a long period, 1527 to 1535, and there is so much to tell that there’s no time to really experience anything. I felt that I was watching a series of sketches rather than a continuous narrative. While the writing is witty, and the acting excellent, the story seemed cold and distant. It was as though it were merely checking off a series of essential scenes rather than telling a story. I had no feeling for Cromwell as a character; Ben Miles, who, as I’ll discuss below, is excellent in this role, seemed to have nothing to say other than his words. Wolsey and More, however, were interesting characters, and I almost wanted to know more about them. Paul Jesson, as Wolsey (and as Sir John Seymour and Kingston) was excellent in a bombastic way; John Ramm, as More, got the tone of this defiant man just right.

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But in the end, there was no emotion in Wolf Hall. The cardinal rule of fiction, it is said, is to “show, not tell.” I felt that Wolf Hall was all about telling; because there was so much to tell. Rather than focus on one aspect of the novel, it tried to cover everything.

To be fair, there was no other way to approach Wolf Hall. Since Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel, not checking all the boxes for what happened in the first book would make the second play unintelligible. For example, in Wolf Hall, there is a sort of masque performed by a number of the characters after Wolsey’s death, with one dressed up as the late cardinal, mocking him as being in hell. In the play, this seemed superfluous, but this turned out to be a key plot point for what happens in Bring Up the Bodies.

The second play has the advantage of covering a shorter time period, and the narrative of Bring Up the Bodies was tighter and more coherent. While the actors seemed to be just going through the motions in Wolf Hall, the second play – which I saw the following night – was much more satisfying. Instead of seeing Cromwell as just a man performing actions with no emotion, his focus on ousting Anne Boleyn – to the point of creating questionable accusations, leading to the execution of six people – showed him as much more ruthless. Ben Miles was brilliant in this role, and he portrayed a man with a mission. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell was just a functionary; in Bring Up the Bodies, he was a man of power, wielding that power to serve his king, and, in some ways, himself.

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The first half of Bring Up the Bodies was somewhat sketch-like, as Wolf Hall was, but it was after the intermission that it came together. One of the problems of these plays was that there were too many short scenes for there to be any dramatic tension. That all changed in the second half of Bring Up the Bodies, with two long scenes. The first was where Cromwell was questioning Mark Smeaton, the lutenist and boy toy who Anne Boleyn was infatuated with. There was enough space and time for this to be real theater. Next came a brilliantly staged scene where Cromwell questioned four men who Smeaton had named as adulterers. Each sat at a corner of the stage, hunched over on a stool, until it was their turn to be questioned, then left the stage after Cromwell had found them guilty in his mind. This long scene – perhaps twenty minutes – was dramatic and tense, and was all about the actors and their words, in the most desperate of situations: that of being judged by the man who could condemn them.

Finally, Anne Boleyn’s turn came, and she had no way of contesting the many confessions against her. An executioner was brought in from France, and she was put to death, but rather than seeing her be executed, the stage became a repeat of her marriage ceremony in Wolf Hall, as if this was what she saw in her mind during her final moments.

I had expected Bring Up the Bodies to end with Anne’s execution: the swordsman could raise his sword over her kneeling body and the lights could go dark. But it didn’t it ended with Cromwell drinking “to my health,” presaging his future fate, when he, too, would meet the executioner.

While most of the acting was excellent, Ben Miles gave a masterful performance in Bring Up the Bodies. He was on stage for most of the three hours, as scenes morphed into other scenes. Unlike in Wolf Hall, his character grew and changed, and Miles showed the external signs of Cromwell’s inner desires. Unfortunately, the spectators who didn’t read the novels – which include myself – didn’t know what his motivations were. I almost wish there were a few soliloquies so Cromwell could let the audience know why he was doing what he did.

The productions were performed in full Tudor dress, with sumptuous costumes. The lighting created a wonderfully varied atmosphere all through the two plays, this on a sparse set: just a stone floor, with the occasional table, chair or bed brought out then removed. And the atmospheric music enhanced the plays without getting in the way.

One needs to see these not as two separate plays, but as two parts of the same play. Many events that occurred in Wolf Hall were essential to understanding Bring Up the Bodies, and if you only saw the latter, you would probably be confused. While Wolf Hall disappointed me, Bring Up the Bodies was excellent, and I hope to see it again. I don’t think I was alone preferring the second play: the audience was far more appreciative after Bring Up the Bodies than after Wolf Hall, with much more rousing applause.

Both plays sold out very quickly, and there were only a couple of empty seats on each night. They are playing through March 29, but the RSC website suggests that there will be future performances. I would be surprised if these plays didn’t move to the London stage; the novels are well-known and both have won prizes, including the Booker Prize, and they would be very popular in a larger theater in London, though they might lose some of the intimacy they offer in the cozy Swan Theatre.

It’s worth noting that Hilary Mantel was visibly present both nights I saw the plays, singing autographs – with her own pen at the ready – and talking with spectators, both before the plays and during the intermission. I asked if she came often, and she said that she did. This made me wonder if she’s watching the plays with a goal of making changes to the scripts, though they have just been published in book form. (Amazon UK)

Watch a video interview with Hilary Mantel:



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