I have made it no great secret that I consider Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are two of the finest novels ever written in the English language. It was sheer brilliance to take Henry VIII’s villainous Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell – a man Holbein painted with eyes like knives – and make him sympathetic. I believe Mantel is an old Leftie hence her disdain for Henry VIII.
Well, yesterday we went to the double bill of RSC adaptations of Mantel’s novels at the Aldwych Theatre. The tickets for this sell-out production were up in the gods: high enough to get altitude sickness and with a vertigo-inducing rake. But I tell you I think they were the best seats in the house for this particular production. Sïan Williams’ choreography on a minimal stage was nothing short of genius. Some audience members thought it was a dance. In truth the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn is a chess game.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies will go down in theatre history as two landmark productions. The casting is exquisite as is the adaptation of Mantel’s novels for the stage. Ben Miles as the brooding, melancholy but rather poignantly kind and loyal Cromwell holds b0th pieces together. One finds oneself admiring Cromwell’s quicksilver mind and morals that shift like the tide as he adapts to circumstance. I particularly enjoyed watching the development of Cromwell’s relationship with Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn.
Mantel is not sympathetic to Anne. She keeps her off stage for most of Wolf Hall and we only see her ‘in the tail of the eye’ for most of Bring Up the Bodies. I adored seeing Anne and Cromwell giggling like children as Sir Thomas More is stripped of his office and sent to the Tower. I also liked the echoes of Cromwell’s mentor Cardinal Wolsey being evicted from his London palace York Place to make way for Anne only for the same thing to happen to her when her household was dismissed and she was sent by barge to the Tower of London surrounded by her enemies.
Lydia Leonard plays Anne as a spiteful harridan and I suspect there was truth to this reading. It must have exhausted the woman to keep Henry VIII dancing on a string for more than a decade until his first marriage was annulled and she finally took the crown. Perhaps it was true that Anne thought every day would be like her Coronation day and it was terribly unlucky (in the short term) that her first child was the daughter who would become Queen Elizabeth I and she miscarried of two boys who would have been her saviour.
What I particularly liked about seeing the plays from a bird’s eye view was how the characters moved around the stage like chess pieces. A queen is taken, knights fall and kings are surrounded and entrapped by bishops and porns. Mantel brilliantly sets-up the story knowing full well that her audience is a smart one who know the story of Henry VIII and his six wives arguably better than she does. We’re introduced early in the story to mousy Jane Seymour – who proclaims herself ‘a nobody’ – and who is played with deadpan naivety by Leah Brotherhead. The character evolves and reveals that Jane was actually as naive as a fox.
Seeing the plays from a distance also worked because characters doubled-up. Brotherhead played frisky Lady Worcester and sickly Princess Mary as well as Jane Seymour. The brilliant Lucy Briars made a magnificent Katherine of Aragon and a Jane Boleyn who was pure poison. Not being close enough to see the whites of their eyes, the talent of these actresses made the switch from character to character effortless. I had no idea many of the cast were doubling-up.
The bitter-sweet reading of Paul Jesson’s Cardinal Wolsey was pitch perfect for me and made the audience understand why Cromwell’s loyalties were so deeply embedded for a man of the cloth who could be viewed as a voluptuary and hypocrite. The stitch-up of Anne Boleyn’s five alleged lovers – explained by Mantel as a consequence of Cromwell’s disgust that they mocked the demise of Wolsey in a masque – was a stroke of utter genius on Hilary Mantel’s part and entirely plausible.
My favourite line in Bring Up The Bodies is Cromwell’s verdict on Anne Boleyn. Ae he said, she had failed in her promise to give Henry VIII a son and nobody would judge her failure as harshly as Anne Boleyn herself.Both plays make the point that blood will beget blood. Nobody wins the chess game. Jane Seymour doesn’t enjoy her throne for long and dies giving birth to a male heir. Archbishop Cranmer is burnt at the stake by Bloody Mary. Cromwell loses his head four years after he effectively massacred the Boleyn faction and Henry VIII became a martyr to a suppurating leg wound, killed another wife and died knowings Jane Seymour’s sickly young son would not secure the Tudor dynasty. So it was really all for nothing.