Hilary Mantel's two historical novels, both Man Booker Prize winners, have been adapted into plays by Mike Poulton for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I was fortunate enough to see both of these new productions on Saturday 22nd March, the first, 'Wolf Hall', at the afternoon matinee, and the second, 'Bring Up The Bodies', in the evening. This equated to over 6 hours of play watching in one day, but I think it was the best way to see them.
The plays are not the books, it should be stressed. The books have a huge range of characters which simply could not be accommodated in a stage production, and consequently, certain scenes have been omitted, and new ones created. For example, in the play Wolf Hall, Cromwell's adolescence is gone, and when we first meet him he is already in service to Cardinal Wolsey.
Ben Miles plays Thomas Cromwell, and does so brilliantly, with wit and with cunning, making him a like-able character, so different to how Cromwell has been portrayed in the past, with the possible exception of James Frain's portrayal in The Tudors. With Ben Miles and the lines he has been given, it is easy to see how Cromwell engendered such loyalty amongst those closest to him, and despite his bullying tactics, and yes, sometimes double-dealing, he comes across as a man you would like to have on your side, not just for what he can do for you, but simply for his company too. Paul Jesson is excellent as Cardinal Wolsey, again an all too able statesman misguidedly put aside by Henry VIII, as Cromwell is destined to be.
Henry VIII has a good ambassador in Nathaniel Parker. Here, Henry is not a monster, killing wives and courtiers for selfish purposes, but a sensitive man, continually disappointed in his quest for a son.
Lydia Leonard plays a very good Anne Boleyn, not so much a victim as a scheming woman who paves her own way to destruction. There are too many players to go into each one - suffice to say, they all did an excellent job.
For anyone unfamiliar with the workings of the Tudor court, these two plays demonstrate the politics, personal rivalries and the dangers clearly. The plays are unsentimental, even though they do deal with sentiment and love, most touchingly in Cromwell's loss of his wife and daughters. The costumes are fabulous, looking truly authentic, and are all that is needed to set the scene, as there is very little set dressing, only props which are brought on and taken off with every scene change.
To conclude, the plays have intelligence, wit and comedy, and are an excellent reworking of Hilary Mantel's novels, who was actually present at the evening performance, sitting just a few seats away from me, as she had a day of talks and lectures on the following Sunday. She seemed very pleased with the performance, as she had every right to.
A very enjoyable day of play watching. I hope they adapt the third and last novel in the trilogy, 'The Mirror and the Glass', as I would love to see that too.
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