Hilary Mantel begins her literary study of Thomas Cromwell with her protagonist on the ground, his face in the mud. The Royal Shakespeare Company open their version with a dance. On stage, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are all delicate political manoeuvring; sly sidesteps covered with graceful flourishes, punctuated by frequent changes of partner. Condensed into six hours of scheming and seducing, what emerges most powerfully from Mantel’s historical narratives is the relentless tension of a world in which putting a foot out of place can mean the end. Murderous games clothed in courtly manners.
What is lost with the jettisoning of Mantel’s potent opening scene is a tangible grasp of Cromwell’s cruel, murky past, and with it the spur for his tireless social climbing. Inevitably, the transfer to the stage has sacrificed an element of the novels’ subjectivity, instead allowing us both inside and outside the protagonist’s mind at once. As he survives the downfall of his patron Cardinal Wolsey to rise steadily to Henry VIII’s side, eventually becoming the King’s most powerful advisor, Cromwell’s position is ever ambiguous. Is he the ultimate working class boy done good, using his influence to do what he can to ensure England’s stability, or just a ruthlessly ambitious bully?
The intricate deals and intrigues of Mantel’s novels, unfolding over some 1,000 pages, are played out with astonishing speed and dexterity by adaptor Mike Poulton and director Jeremy Herrin. The backdrop of Cromwell’s rise in Wolf Hall – and arguably his window of opportunity – is the King’s long mission to annul his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn; Bring Up the Bodies, no less tumultuously, charts the bloody decline of Henry’s second wife. In both, we see Cromwell clinging onto power with the dirtied tips of his fingers, doing what he must to both satisfy Henry’s fickle desires and secure his own position.
The narrative economy of Poulton and Herrin’s adaptation intensifies the teetering delicacy of Cromwell’s political balance. Solutions must be manufactured in the space of a breath, remedies administered in the sweep of a cloak that divides one scene from the next. Remarkably, however, the action rarely feels rushed. The storytelling of several pages becomes the work of a moment: Cromwell’s wife poignantly slips from his grasp, her death told in a single image; elsewhere, the sight of a row of squabbling advisors stopping to cross themselves at the appearance of a statue of the Virgin Mary succinctly captures the fearful hypocrisy of the age.
While story translates smoothly – some unavoidable streamlining aside – the rich, immersive world of Mantel’s novels is not so easily adapted. For anyone who has read them, the memory of the books’ sumptuous prose colours the gaps left by the narrative juggernauts of the plays, which motor steadily forward. David Plater’s sculpting shafts of light do their best to offer some of the atmosphere that is so vivid in the novels, as does the evocative music and sound design of Stephen Warbeck and Nick Powell respectively. The minimal stone and fire of Christopher Oram’s imposing set design, meanwhile, provides a fitting crucible for the passions of Henry VIII and his courtiers, loomed over at all times by the ghostly presence of the cross.
It is not only religion that haunts in this pair of plays. Poulton and Herrin offer us supernatural visitings of all kinds, rendering the ghosts of Cromwell’s mind visible on the stage. The return of the dead in this way, their figures occupying the same space as the living, hints at the accumulating layers of history – history that, by Cromwell’s hand, can be easily swept aside or manipulated. Often, however, their arrival jars with the action, heralding awkwardness rather than ill omens. If the opening scenes of Hamlet should have taught us anything by now, it’s that ghosts on stage are perilously difficult to pull off.
Although the adaptors have done well in preserving much of Mantel’s narrative and wit, the same cannot always be said for her nuance. Several of the lesser characters are little more than ciphers here, while a complex awareness of the historical debates surrounding the Tudor era is swapped for classroom fact-dropping and occasionally laboured exposition. At times, thanks to the continuing cultural ubiquity of the Tudors, it feels as though an audience are being offered bonus points for historical knowledge and the smug advantage of hindsight. The bleated “I’m nobody, just Jane Seymour” is greeted with a collective, self-congratulatory chuckle, while Wolsey’s confident pronouncement that he has seen the last of Anne Boleyn raises one of the biggest laughs of the afternoon (surpassed only by a comment about the fresh country air in Stoke Newington).
But ultimately, whatever its other strengths and flaws, any version of Mantel’s novels was always going to rise and fall on the shoulders of its Cromwell. Fortunately, Ben Miles is an inspired choice. While we might not get the full picture of his humble origins (repeated cries of “blacksmith’s son” do not a back story make), Miles’ Cromwell is a brilliantly realised charmer, as compelling as he is shrewd. Intelligence, humour and cold calculation all glitter behind his dark eyes, which also occasionally flash with the instinctive violence bred of his days as a soldier. But just as we find our sympathies helplessly aligning with this smoothly pragmatic politician, Miles sharply pivots, unsettling any easy interpretations of Cromwell’s motives.
The rest of the cast shape-shift around him, the majority of performers confidently taking on a collection of different roles. As the King’s successive queens, Lucy Briers, Lydia Leonard and Leah Brotherhead are suitably stubborn, seductive and shy respectively, while adding touches of complexity to the archetypes that history has moulded these women into. Leonard in particular underlines Anne’s sharpness and fatal arrogance with a shade of insecurity, while Brotherhead’s initial, squeaking nervousness gradually mutates into meek but assured grace. And if Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is not quite as dangerously charismatic as history has taught us to expect, his mercurial personality certainly drives those who circle cautiously around him, hoping to keep their place in the precarious dance of power.