Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies, Aldwych Theatre

WOLF HALL. Ben Miles (Thomas Cromwell).  Photographer Keith Pattison.

Originally written for Exeunt.

Hilary Mantel begins her literary study of Thomas Cromwell with her protagonist on the ground, his face in the mud. The Royal Shakespeare Company open their version with a dance. On stage, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are all delicate political manoeuvring; sly sidesteps covered with graceful flourishes, punctuated by frequent changes of partner. Condensed into six hours of scheming and seducing, what emerges most powerfully from Mantel’s historical narratives is the relentless tension of a world in which putting a foot out of place can mean the end. Murderous games clothed in courtly manners.

What is lost with the jettisoning of Mantel’s potent opening scene is a tangible grasp of Cromwell’s cruel, murky past, and with it the spur for his tireless social climbing. Inevitably, the transfer to the stage has sacrificed an element of the novels’ subjectivity, instead allowing us both inside and outside the protagonist’s mind at once. As he survives the downfall of his patron Cardinal Wolsey to rise steadily to Henry VIII’s side, eventually becoming the King’s most powerful advisor, Cromwell’s position is ever ambiguous. Is he the ultimate working class boy done good, using his influence to do what he can to ensure England’s stability, or just a ruthlessly ambitious bully?

The intricate deals and intrigues of Mantel’s novels, unfolding over some 1,000 pages, are played out with astonishing speed and dexterity by adaptor Mike Poulton and director Jeremy Herrin. The backdrop of Cromwell’s rise inWolf Hall – and arguably his window of opportunity – is the King’s long mission to annul his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon and wed Anne Boleyn; Bring Up the Bodies, no less tumultuously, charts the bloody decline of Henry’s second wife. In both, we see Cromwell clinging onto power with the dirtied tips of his fingers, doing what he must to both satisfy Henry’s fickle desires and secure his own position.

The narrative economy of Poulton and Herrin’s adaptation intensifies the teetering delicacy of Cromwell’s political balance. Solutions must be manufactured in the space of a breath, remedies administered in the sweep of a cloak that divides one scene from the next. Remarkably, however, the action rarely feels rushed. The storytelling of several pages becomes the work of a moment: Cromwell’s wife poignantly slips from his grasp, her death told in a single image; elsewhere, the sight of a row of squabbling advisors stopping to cross themselves at the appearance of a statue of the Virgin Mary succinctly captures the fearful hypocrisy of the age.

While story translates smoothly – some unavoidable streamlining aside – the rich, immersive world of Mantel’s novels is not so easily adapted. For anyone who has read them, the memory of the books’ sumptuous prose colours the gaps left by the narrative juggernauts of the plays, which motor steadily forward. David Plater’s sculpting shafts of light do their best to offer some of the atmosphere that is so vivid in the novels, as does the evocative music and sound design of Stephen Warbeck and Nick Powell respectively. The minimal stone and fire of Christopher Oram’s imposing set design, meanwhile, provides a fitting crucible for the passions of Henry VIII and his courtiers, loomed over at all times by the ghostly presence of the cross.

It is not only religion that haunts in this pair of plays. Poulton and Herrin offer us supernatural visitings of all kinds, rendering the ghosts of Cromwell’s mind visible on the stage. The return of the dead in this way, their figures occupying the same space as the living, hints at the accumulating layers of history – history that, by Cromwell’s hand, can be easily swept aside or manipulated. Often, however, their arrival jars with the action, heralding awkwardness rather than ill omens. If the opening scenes of Hamlet should have taught us anything by now, it’s that ghosts on stage are perilously difficult to pull off.

Although the adaptors have done well in preserving much of Mantel’s narrative and wit, the same cannot always be said for her nuance. Several of the lesser characters are little more than ciphers here, while a complex awareness of the historical debates surrounding the Tudor era is swapped for classroom fact-dropping and occasionally laboured exposition. At times, thanks to the continuing cultural ubiquity of the Tudors, it feels as though an audience are being offered bonus points for historical knowledge and the smug advantage of hindsight. The bleated “I’m nobody, just Jane Seymour” is greeted with a collective, self-congratulatory chuckle, while Wolsey’s confident pronouncement that he has seen the last of Anne Boleyn raises one of the biggest laughs of the afternoon (surpassed only by a comment about the fresh country air in Stoke Newington).

But ultimately, whatever its other strengths and flaws, any version of Mantel’s novels was always going to rise and fall on the shoulders of its Cromwell. Fortunately, Ben Miles is an inspired choice. While we might not get the full picture of his humble origins (repeated cries of “blacksmith’s son” do not a back story make), Miles’ Cromwell is a brilliantly realised charmer, as compelling as he is shrewd. Intelligence, humour and cold calculation all glitter behind his dark eyes, which also occasionally flash with the instinctive violence bred of his days as a soldier. But just as we find our sympathies helplessly aligning with this smoothly pragmatic politician, Miles sharply pivots, unsettling any easy interpretations of Cromwell’s motives.

The rest of the cast shape-shift around him, the majority of performers confidently taking on a collection of different roles. As the King’s successive queens, Lucy Briers, Lydia Leonard and Leah Brotherhead are suitably stubborn, seductive and shy respectively, while adding touches of complexity to the archetypes that history has moulded these women into. Leonard in particular underlines Anne’s sharpness and fatal arrogance with a shade of insecurity, while Brotherhead’s initial, squeaking nervousness gradually mutates into meek but assured grace. And if Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is not quite as dangerously charismatic as history has taught us to expect, his mercurial personality certainly drives those who circle cautiously around him, hoping to keep their place in the precarious dance of power.

Photo: Keith Pattison.

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Keep it moving: Jeremy Herrin

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Originally written for The Guardian.

“It’s about using the power of the words,” says the director Jeremy Herrin. He is reflecting on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the meaty Hilary Mantel novels that have achieved the double feat of topping bestseller lists and winning literary prizes. At more than 1,000 pages combined, the books pose a formidable challenge to adapters.

“You’re very conscious that there’s an enormous amount of material and a limited amount of stage time,” says Herrin, summing up the dilemma. Working closely with the playwright Mike Poulton (“it’s got to be collaborative”), Herrin resolved to create a driving momentum at the centre of the drama, moving the action along swiftly enough to keep audiences engrossed throughout the two three-hour productions: “I don’t like to keep an audience waiting.”

Discussing the adaptations, Herrin repeatedly mentions the importance of “moving forwards”, stressing the dynamism of his approach. Mantel’s novels, which trace the turbulent politics of Henry VIII’s reign through the behind-the-scenes figure of Thomas Cromwell, are dense with court politics. The stage versions navigate this by hopping rapidly from location to location with minimal fuss. In telling this fictionalised historical narrative, Herrin was keen to avoid some of the more familiar tropes that have congealed around representations of Tudor England, devising, instead, a stage language that “could hint subtly at modernity”.

“You can find out a lot about who we are now by looking through the prism of history,” Herrin suggests, arguing that it is this “sense of where our nation was defined” that continues to inspire our fascination with the Tudor era. “It’s one of those stories that every generation can look at again and find different meaning in,” he says. “There’s also a sort of horror about the tyranny underneath those facades that we’re really keen to revisit and to analyse.”

Central to the stage productions is the characterisation of Cromwell, with which Herrin is particularly pleased. “Ben Miles was always the right man for the job,” he says. “It’s a gargantuan feat, in terms of pure stamina and precision. He does six hours of the most sublime, subtle, very clear, very specific acting.”

After a successful initial run, the move from Stratford-upon-Avon to London’s West End, where the double bill opens next month, presents another challenge for Herrin. Of the change of stage, he says: “We’ll have to find the right performance language to fit in that room.” It’s “a chance to have another go at it and tell the same story under different circumstances”.

At the same time as preparing for the London transfer, Herrin has been settling into his new job as artistic director of touring theatre company Headlong. For the man once dubbed “Britain’s busiest director”, the added workload should not be a problem, but filling predecessor Rupert Goold‘s shoes is no mean feat. Herrin shrugs off the pressure, simply saying, “I’m really grateful to Rupert for doing his job so brilliantly”.

Herrin is now in the midst of his first season in charge, with an updated version of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening out on tour and a new co-production with the Royal Court coming up this summer. For Herrin, the priority is to “keep doing what we do really well” and – as with all his work – to continue making the theatre that inspires him.

“I’m interested in theatre that’s exciting and exhilarating, and that goes into territory that will create debate and will be firmly about what’s going on in the world.”

Photo: Keith Pattison.

No Quarter, Royal Court Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Ever since J.M. Barrie first gave us the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan figures have consistently captured the imagination. Robin, the damaged, boyish figure at the centre of Polly Stenham’s new play, is a direct descendant of this tradition, a self-declared “landed gypsy” whose not so magical but no less mythical Neverland is an old country house populated with faded rugs and creaking suits of armour.

Tracing a recurring theme in Stenham’s work, Robin’s isolated kingdom is a world dominated in turn by the suffocating presence and crippling absence of an intoxicating, unstable parent. His mother, wild, untamed novelist Lily, has brought up her youngest son in rural isolation, schooling him at home and feeding him on a diet of nature and art. Horrified by the glowing smartphones and information onslaught that he finds in London, the musically gifted Robin has returned home, drink and drugs in tow, to a childhood paradise that is being steadily snatched away from him. In this world of teetering privilege, property, land and identity are all inextricably wound up with one another, as the fight for a threatened way of relating to the world becomes inseparable from a desperate battle to hold onto the family home.

For all the domestic tumult and personal pain, however,No Quarter seems also to chant a eulogy for Britain, for a green but fading land of wild stags and lost boys, for a fled and empty mythology. A Jerusalem for the bare-footed, bohemian upper classes, there is a mingled air of both scorn and mourning for a way of living that was never really any more than a pretty story. Like the stuffed animals that clutter Tom Scutt’s meticulously detailed set – a haunting, gloomy shrine to taxidermy – this hermetically sealed rustic utopia is simply a mirage, death dressed up in the feathers of life. Every detail of Jeremy Herrin’s production hints at the same sense of slowly shattering illusion, right down to the dressing-up chest and the repeated use of Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’; all an ephemeral reverie, an alluring narrative of a way of life and a nation that is drawing inexorably to its close.

Delicately linked to this atmosphere of illusion, there is also an intriguingly self-reflexive note to a piece of art that is essentially about artists. In the opinion of Robin’s elder brother Oliver, a politician who has fled the chaotically creative nest, caring only about art is just another way of caring about oneself. This immediately invites reflection on the potentially indulgent nature of what we are observing, a comment on the world that faces accusations of being just as futile and self-serving as Robin’s petulant hedonism. At times Stenham seems to conspicuously revel in her language, breaking the spell of the action with long and often beguiling speeches on the state of the world beyond these four walls; Herrin and actor Tom Sturridge give Robin as much bohemian swagger and jagged broken edges as the role can contain, crafting a young Rooster Byron for the crumbling halls of privilege; Scutt’s design, a hoarder’s heaven, is a lesson in excess.

Yet Robin – who for all his self-absorption and glaring faults remains the fiercely beating heart of the piece, particularly as brilliantly realised in the wiry, charismatic figure of Sturridge – strikes a blow against such charges. Making things, he protests, is the opposite of death; a way of revolting against the ugliness of the world. This argument recalls Simon Stephens’ observation that, however bleak the content, making theatre is an essentially optimistic act – an act in which this particular production is ultimately engaged. While the piece never quite seems to settle on either Oliver’s or Robin’s way of looking at the world, the final chord that it strikes is, despite everything, a mutedly hopeful one. Its vision of today might be dark and muddled, but it frames the receding myths of the past with a hint at the possibility of a better future.

This House, National Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

The opposing benches in the House of Commons are placed at a calculated distance of exactly two swords’ lengths apart; it is an arena which was, from the very first, built with confrontation in mind. It is also an arena which, conveniently for the purposes of theatre, is no stranger to performance. The focus of James Graham’s new play, however, peels back the overtly theatrical space of ministerial speechifying to take a peek backstage, at the applying of the warpaint and the cracking of the whip.

His subject is a chapter of parliamentary history in which that largely invisible behind-the-scenes discipline was pivotal. The phrase “you couldn’t make it up” – avoided by Graham’s script but ever implicitly present in the farcical political wranglings presented on stage – is arguably more applicable to the parliament of 1974-9 than to any other period in recent political history. With little to no majority, Labour’s precarious position of governing rested on a “tug of war”, determined by who could exert the strongest pull on the “odds and sods” and the wavering backbenchers.

Placed in the heart of this parliamentary battlefield, Jeremy Herrin’s production constructs a compromised version of immersiveness, in which the audience are decidedly located within the sphere of the Commons but at a remove from its machinations. We are privileged observers, but never actors – a lack of agency that forms a fitting reflection of the average citizen’s place at the sidelines of politics. Rae Smith’s design has transformed the Cottesloe into parliament in miniature; the stage is flanked by those familiar, aggressively arranged benches, while the performance space itself is sharply divided into the government and opposition whips’ offices, the scene of scheming, dealing and ruthless backstage manoeuvring. No consensus politics here.

While the padded green benches on which we sit and the near-constant presence of the bewigged Speaker provide the perpetual visual backdrop of the Commons, the power games and posturing at play here might just as easily be taking place in the office or the schoolyard. This latter reference is brought to mind by the blackboard that haunts the government whips’ office, its chalked up political allegiances like marks against Labour’s governing. The schoolboy atmosphere of insecurities and one-upmanship extends into the spiritedly boisterous performances of the largely male cast, dominated by rival deputy whips Philip Glenister and Charles Edwards, who clog the air of both offices with frustrated testosterone.

As fascinating as this bizarre slice of politics is, the production seems also to be engaged with wider concerns. Primarily through the rivalry between Glenister’s and Edwards’ characters, Graham suggests that human nature is both the downfall and the triumph of politics, what gets in its way and what propels it forwards. It is an intriguing idea, but one that is not quite given room to be fully unpacked amid everything else at play. What This House does achieve with smiling clarity is a precise portrait of the foibles of the British political system, a system encumbered with idiosyncratic traditions and described as “creaking” and “diseased”, but a system that is at the same time implicitly compared with the giant clock in whose shadow the seat of power lies; both old, but still ticking away.

While Graham has delicately patched together an intricate and frequently compelling account of this curious caesura in twentieth-century politics, the complexities of these slippery deals and the very nature of the parliamentary stalemate that is its subject form something of a barrier. In the words of one frustrated MP, “this isn’t parliament, it’s a fucking purgatory”. Though at the end of the impasse, as Margaret Thatcher’s disembodied promise of “hope” echoes around the Cottesloe, this production makes it hard not to feel that this state of limbo might have been better than what was to follow.