It is now over 30 years since the Royal Shakespeare Company performed their revolutionary and now legendary adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby on this same stage and nothing like it has been seen since. Until now. In the intervening years, the Company has had an unsuccessful spell in the Barbican followed by a prolonged absence from the capital, so it is fitting that a return to their spiritual London home should be marked by another massive adaptation from a novel, actually two novels by Hilary Mantel, both of them winners of the Booker Prize. Together, the plays, adapted by Mike Poulton, run for almost six hours, so they are huge in every sense, a vivid and detailed examination of political manoeuvring in the Court of King Henry VIII. The history of this period is well known and there have been many dramatised versions, but Mantel is more concerned with the characters than the history, interweaving fact with fiction and making the people of Tudor England very modern in their language and behaviour. Their conversations include moans about the British weather and ideas about what to eat for dinner as well as discussions over Court gossip and plots for their next moves. Thomas seems to have been a very popular name in these times and, at the centre of the plays is Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), a blacksmith’s son who has been a mercenary, a financier, a lawyer and is now emerging as a politician. At first, he is a “fixer”, a sort of Tudor Arthur Daley, for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Paul Jesson), who is depicted here as avuncular and with an acerbic wit. When Wolsey falls out of favour with the Court, he moves on and eventually becomes right hand man to the King himself. Whilst being streetwise and ruthless, Cromwell is also a devoted family man and unswerving in his loyalty to his friends, particularly Wolsey. Thus Mantel paints a picture in which decency and honesty co-exist with intrigue and betrayal. It is these contradictions in the story, but more specifically in the character of Cromwell, that make the plays so spellbinding and Miles’ performance is awesome in both the intimate and the epic (he is rarely off stage for the duration) senses. Other characters also defy conventional portrayals: Henry (Nathaniel Parker) is given much more depth and complexity than usual; Sir Thomas More (John Ramm), far from being the saint of A Man for All Seasons, is a near-demented religious zealot; and Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) is no innocent victim, more a manipulative power-seeker who cares for her dog more than her husband or her (allegedly) many lovers. The performances are all so strong that Hilary Mantel has stated publicly that the characters as played here are now fixed firmly in her head as she writes the next sequel. Revisionist history this certainly is, but there is never any doubt that these plays are intended to be entertaining more than educational and they almost always succeed with that aim. That parts of the second play are less gripping than the first could be due to the novelty of their presentation and structure having worn off slightly, or to events seeming repetitive, or maybe just to audience fatigue. Nonetheless, the two plays do not stand well alone and no-one having seen Wolf Hall is likely to be able to resist its sequel. The actors are lavishly costumed, but the open stage is uncluttered with props, allowing Jeremy Herrin’s production to flow smoothly throughout. After so many positive comments, it is sad to end with a complaint, but £6 is excessive for a theatre programme and separate programmes for the two plays (completely unnecessary as the casts and production teams are the same) is pushing it much too far.
Performance date: 10 May 2014