Wolf Hall

There is something about the Tudors that seems to grab us all. Whether it be the Shakespearean legacy or the modernised tv series, The Tudors, we can’t seem to get enough of them. Four years ago, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall followed shortly after by Bring Up The Bodies took most of us by storm.
True, for others, Mantel’s assiduous research lead to such a mammoth tome, far from being unputdownable, it was something unfinishable. Nonetheless it became the 2009 Man Booker winner.
I recall, at the time, being fascinated and impressed by Wolf Hall though never getting as far as Bring Up The Bodies. But strange to tell, my recollection of Mantel’s Wolf Hall has been wholly overtaken by C J Sansom’s historical crime novels whose series cover much the same period as Mantel’s with a character quite as hypnotic as Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell in Matthew Shardlake, the wonderfully moral-in-turbulent-times Inns of Court hunchbacked lawyer.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies now adorn the RSC’s beautiful Swan Theatre.
I can only report on the former at this point. In a new spry new adaptation by Mantel and ace adaptor Mike Poulton, Wolf Hall graces the Swan’s three-sided thrust stage in a vivid, swirling historical Tudor pageant directed by the normally Royal Court incumbent, Jeremy Herrin.
Herrin directs Wolf Hall as though it were a modern play. Pacey and humorous, you have to listen carefully as time scales and personalities elide and rush into each other, scarcely leaving time for much consideration. If you don’t know your history, you’ll be lost.
But for most people, the story is well known – Henry VIII’s frantic desire for a male heir and guilt at marrying his brother’s widow, his determination to be rid of Katharine of Aragon and his pursuit of the ravishingly beautiful and radically inclined Anne Boleyn.
The sense of unstable times and fluctuating fortunes is well if benignly caught. For a more heart-racing appreciation you have to go to the Jacobeans. Or back to Shakespeare’s The Wars of the Roses for a real sense of political turbulence. And for a sprightlier, racier account of Anne Boleyn’s role in the coming of the new English Bible, Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn at the Shakespeare’s Globe in 2011 gave a more scintillating account of Boleyn’s Protestant passions and the era’s catastrophic religious ferment.
What Wolf Hall brings us – apart from superb period costuming and some authentic dances as if the RSC had been paying close attention to how much the Globe’s Tudor galliards and gambols have been taken to the public heart – is a splendid glut of big personalities.
Without quite the character richness of the RSC’s most famous novel-to-stage adaptation, Nicholas Nickelby, Paul Jesson’s scarlet frocked, blustering but seemingly benevolent Cardinal Wolsey is breezily enjoyable, Nicholas Day’s booming, brazen Norfolk his Catholic lay counterpoint.
Nathaniel Parker’s Henry is charmingly unpredictable though lacks dangerous edginess. In a company of fast moving cameos and doubled up casting, I particularly enjoyed Lucy Briers Katharine and her Lady Rochford and John Ramm’s Thomas More (given a very bad press here) and his unassuming courtier Henry Norris.
Keeping a watching brief over it all is Ben Miles’ Thomas Cromwell. Neither the malevolent, eminence grise of Sansom’s novels or historical convention, he is very much Mantel’s instinctive pragmatist. This Cromwell enjoys the patronage of Wolsey but once that master has fallen, adheres to Henry and his desire for divorce and full custodianship of the Protestant Church, like a limpet.
A steady, watchful performance – and onstage for much of the time – Miles’ careerist is hardly an Elizabethan Francis Urquhart. In humanising Cromwell, heretical thought, haven’t Mantel and Poulton made him ever so slightly dull?
Perish the thought! The box office tills are overflowing. On to Bring Up the Bodies!