Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green enjoys Mike Poulton's masterly adaptation of Hilary Mantel's two 16th-century-based novels as the RSC put on a richly rewarding theatrical experience

Wolf Hall / Bring Up The Bodies

Power, passion and politics make for a combustible mix in Jeremy Herrin’s masterly RSC production of Wolf Hall / Bring up the Bodies (Aldwich Theatre ) adapted by Mike Poulton from hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels which bring to life Henry VIII’s re;ationship with anne Boleyn through the eyes and ears of his principal “fixer” Thomas Cromwell.

We begin with the first part of this engrossing stage diptych with Wolf Hall. It is 1527 and Henry VIII has been king for nearly 20 years and is desperate for a male heir. Intent on divorcing Katharine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyne, he demands Cardinal Wolsey persuade the Pope to grant him an annulment. With every moment that passes the King’s anger grows . Into this volatile court comes blacksmith’s son Thomas Cromwell - a one-time mercenary, politician, lawyer and ruthlessly persuing his own agenda.

In Bring Up the Bodies we move forward to 1535. Anne Boleyn is now Queen, her path to Henry’s side cleared by Thomas Cromwell. Archbishop Thomas Cramner has annulled Henry’s first marriage to Katharine of Aragon and both she and Princess Mary remain under house arrest in seperate places. However, this divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne has broken Henry’s allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Henry also remains without a male heir and this conflict with teh church has left England dangerously isolated as France and the Holy Roman Empire ominously manoeuvre for position. With Lord Chancellor Thomas More executed and Cardinal Wolsey dead, Cromwell is now the King’s closest advisor and he must negotiate an increasingly dangerous court, as he charms, bullies and manipulates nobility, commoners adn foreign powers alike to satisfy Henry, keep the nation safe and protect his own ambitions.

Mike Poulton has done a remarkable job in compressing over 1000 pages into two three-hour playswhic reveal the private face behind the public image of these iconic historical figures in a clear, crisp and gripping manner, while also presenting a haunting vision of Tudor politics.The emotional tension the plays generate reside mainly in the developing intimacy between Henry and Cromwell and the outrage it provoked in the old aristocracy.

Director Jeremy Herrin marshalls a huge cast with a great fluency. Ben Miles in fur-trimmed cloak and riding boots, is superb as Cromwell, displayig a mercurial mix of kindness and callousness and conveys the character’s charisma and efficiency in a style that’s both relaxed and magnetic. Nathaniel Parker admirably gets right under the skin Henry, revealing vulnerability behind the bluster, half-believing his own excuses for divorce and blaming his lack of a male heir on witchcraft.

Equally impressive are Lydia Leonard’s power grabbing minxy Anne Boleyn , Lucy Briers who brings meticulous severity to the role of Katharine of Aragon, John Ramm’s finely observed Thomas More and Paul Jesson’s convincing Wolsey. In a smaller role Joey Batey is suitably slippery as the adulterous musician Mark Smeaton.  

These two production complement one another perfectly and make the 16th century feel racy and accessible while also providing richly rewarding theatrical experience.

Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies

Runs at Aldwich Theatre until Saturday 6 September

Box Office: 0844 453 9025  


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