Christopher Oram’s sparse set looms ominously above this exciting adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning novel, with metal cages overhead and a huge cross at the back of the stage reminding us that in the Tudor court, the dual threats of imprisonment and damnation are always real and imminent.
The set seems somehow modern and ancient simultaneously, capturing the quality of historical immediacy that makes Mantel’s novel so gripping. It is an unusual treat to see Tudor costumes onstage, the earliest we usually see being Elizabethan costumes for Shakespeare; together with Sîan Williams’s choreographed court dance to open the show, they immediately bring the stage to life.
The adaptation is necessarily composed of many short scenes (understandable when trying to cram a 700-page novel into two and a half hours), and those who have read the novel will lament the loss of sections that had to be missed out. However, the storytelling is smooth and innovative, the quickened pace lending the production urgency and dynamism. Simple, effective stage devices are helped by Paule Constable’s beautiful lighting, and the audience never feels as though the narrative has left them behind.
Ben Miles is excellent as the omnipresent ‘fixer’ Cromwell: somewhat more gentle than one might imagine the character in the novel, but with a watchful, quietly powerful air and well-placed moments of vulnerability. Nathaniel Parker carries on Mantel’s overhaul of Henry VIII’s public image, from the imperious, lustful monarch of our school history lessons to a charismatic, reasonable and pious man who has flaws like any person, but simply wishes to do God’s will and to protect the stability of his country.
Paul Jesson is magnetic as Thomas Wolsey, and shows us exactly why Cromwell has so much admiration for the cardinal throughout the story. He imprints himself indelibly upon the narrative during the first half, and his presence is felt all the way through to the final scene. Lydia Leonard is suitably compelling as Anne Boleyn, clearly having fun with Anne’s teasing and flirting, and showing the bewitching power that Anne is famous for. Nicholas Day plays her uncle the Duke of Norfolk as a wonderfully selfish and pompous antagonist to Cromwell, and Pierro Niél Mee’s fantastically funny and filthy monologue full of authentic Frenchisms, about Anne’s reputed affair with her brother, is a really memorable moment.
Despite a difficult acoustic in the Aldwych Theatre, which makes it very hard work for the actors to be heard at all times, the performances are excellent. Using Mike Poulton’s faithful and witty script the actors belie the idea that people in the Tudor court behaved in a somehow more lofty and detached way than we do now: they sneer at and play with each other, they form alliances and rivalries, they chat and get bored and they do their jobs and go to bed. It’s just that in Henry’s court, one mistake could be the difference between power and riches and a nasty end.
Wolf Hall is playing at the Aldwych Theatre until 6 September. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website.
Photo by Keith Pattison.