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Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies

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Jeremy Herrin’s riveting, sell-out staging of Hilary Mantel’s books has now made the journey to the West End. Mantel has yet to publish the third instalment in her trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister and fixer – The Mirror and The Light – but the first two novels, Booker-winners both, have already embedded themselves deeply into the public imagination, as this transfer demonstrates. A BBC production, starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, is also in the pipeline.

Mike Poulton’s adaptation is frequently ingenious in the way it fillets the novels, paring them down while retaining a sense of complexity – there are a lot of characters to keep track of – as well as something of Mantel’s wit and lightness of touch. Herrin’s productions, which have been trimmed a little for their West End transfer, inevitably jettison some of the richness of detail, but they compensate in terms of plotting, moving along at a fast pace, the scene changes fluid and nimble. Interestingly, and in contrast to the novels, Wolf Hall feels the tauter of the two, the momentum slowing a little in Bring Up The Bodies.

Though Ben Miles is a charismatic Cromwell and conveys the man’s tenaciousness, intelligence and the sheer strength of will required for the son of a Putney blacksmith to climb so high, he’s almost too good-natured at times, and, perhaps inevitably, a less layered figure than in the books. Miles makes of him a very human and engaging central presence, but his more mercenary, imposing qualities seem to have been pushed into the background, to the detriment of the crucial interrogation sequences in Bring Up the Bodies.

Nathaniel Parker similarly resists the urge to make a larger than life figure of Henry VIII. He’s regal, vain, volatile and dangerously insecure, but also grounded: a man first, a king second. The ensemble company as a whole is superb, doubling and sometimes tripling to convey the intricacy of the novels.

Christopher Oram’s stark, grey box of a set, with a great cross of light dominating the back wall, stands in sharp contrast to the sumptuous costumes. It’s a very effective approach and the occasional appearance of tapestry or throne almost feels like an intrusion. A couple of superfluous dance sequences aside, the productions contain a few moments of real visual brilliance and there’s an elegance and cleanness to the whole exercise, with the productions best viewed consecutively to appreciate their full power.

Natasha Tripney

  • Aldwych, London
  • May 17-September 6
  • Author: Hilary Mantel, adapted by Mike Poulton
  • Director: Jeremy Herrin
  • Producers: Royal Shakespeare Company, Playful Productions
  • Cast includes: Ben Miles, Nathaniel Parker, Lydia Leonard, Paul Jesson, Lucy Briers
  • Running time: 2hrs 50mins/2hrs 45mins

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The Stage is a British weekly newspaper and website covering the entertainment industry, and particularly theatre. It was founded in 1880. It contains news, reviews, opinion, features, and recruitment advertising.