By William Wolf


The Royal Shakespeare Company productions of the companion plays “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” have stirred acclaim in London and the good news for New York theatergoers is that plans are afoot to bring these works steeped in British 16th century history to Manhattan.

I gained a head start by seeing both at the Aldwych Theatre while on a recent London trip, and can attest that they are fascinating works, impressively adapted by Mike Poulton from Hilary Mantel’s popular novels that have sold more than three million copies and been published in 38 languages. Given the sprawling nature of the complicated machinations in British history, the challenge of putting the novels on stage were formidable. But under the direction of Jeremy Herrin and with a superb cast, the results are impressive.

Ben Miles is extraordinary in the role of commoner Thomas Cromwell, who became the closest advisor to King Henry VIII, colorfully portrayed by Nathaniel Parker. Cromwell is depicted as a shrewd manipulator, deviously maneuvering to do Henry’s bidding, while pursuing his own agenda and attempting to preserve his ongoing standing in the volatile, perilous atmosphere. Cromwell is the driving dramatic force in both plays, and Miles makes the most of the acting opportunity, with wit in speeches and observation. Miles gives Cromwell the larger-than-life character dictated by the writing.

As for the content, it is rich in demonstrating the religious and political machinations and portrayals of the key figures involved. Henry desperately wants a son to continue his legacy, a desire Cromwell schemes to bring about. The value of a wife, as well as her life, depends on whether or not she can produce a son. Brits will be more attuned to the intricacies than Americans, whose study of English history is generally cursory. However the plays come across with clarity, thanks to the level of performances and the way in which the drama has been honed for the stage.

For example, among those excelling are Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, Lucy Briers as Katherine of Aragon, Olivia Darnley as Mary Boleyn, Leah Brotherhead as Jane Seymour, Paul Jesson as Cardinal Wolsey, Nicholas Day as Duke of Norfolk, and various actors in multiple roles.

The history—the the time period ranges from 1527 to 1535-- comes across entertainingly as well as informatively. The set design by Christopher Oram is a simple one, providing maximum playing area for the cast, and Oran has also designed costumes attuned to the period without making them overly flamboyant.

Of course, one has to pay extra close attention to the dialogue to not miss the nuances and factual material essential to understand the background and unfolding of events. But the experience is rewarding. With the plays in repertory, it is best to see “Wolf Hall” first, although my schedule dictated that I see that one second after “Bring Up the Bodies,” but I found that order worked too, as each play stands on its own. At the Aldwych Theatre, London. Review posted September 19, 2014.


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