Divorced, Beheaded, Died


Originally written for the RSC’s Bring Up the Bodies programme.

Henry VIII remains one of the most compelling leaders that history has to offer us. The charismatic monarch can lay many claims to fame: his break with the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, his passion for eating and drinking. But what Henry VIII is perhaps best remembered for is his fickle matrimonial record and the six women he infamously wed.

Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies only feature the first three of the King’s unlucky spouses: divorced, beheaded, died, as the mnemonic reminds us. According to actors Lucy Briers, Lydia Leonard and Leah Brotherhead, playing Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour respectively, you would struggle to find three more different women. “If Anne was someone who was going to make a grand entrance through the front door, Jane would be the person who came through the back door,” says Brotherhead, contrasting the fatal arrogance of Henry’s second wife with the quiet diffidence of his third. Continuing the metaphor, Briers suggests that Katherine, a politically powerful Queen who was unwaveringly assured of the divine right of her position, “would be flown in by helicopter”. Whatever their differences, however, there is little doubt that these were three extraordinary historical figures.

Katherine of Aragon, often relegated to a prologue in the juicy tale of Anne Boleyn’s rise and downfall, was a fascinating figure in her own right. Born into royalty and power, the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon was assured of her place in the world and knew from a young age that she was destined to be Queen of England – first as the wife of Henry VIII’s short-lived older brother Arthur and then as Henry’s first spouse. “She has absolutely no qualms about her status and her predestined right to be where she is,” explains Briers, “which is why what happens to her is so horrific to her and so appalling. It not only breaks laws of the land and religious laws, but it’s her entire moral framework being taken down in front of her.”

Katherine was married to Henry for over 20 years – more than the King’s five subsequent marriages put together. Their union was put to an end by a combination of Katherine’s inability to offer Henry the male heir he so desperately desired and the King’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn. Anne, meanwhile, has had her fair share of infamy in the history books – “every lurid accusation in Europe was flung at her,” Leonard points out – making her a “gift of a role”. This was a woman who held Henry’s interest for six years before he was finally able to marry her, but who was executed within three years of their wedding day. “It’s interesting watching her lose control,” says Leonard. “She starts off very much in control, and as that grip loosens it’s sort of like watching a car crash.”

Jane Seymour, in contrast to her two predecessors, is careful, quiet and modest. “I’ve not quite made up my mind on how ambitious Jane is or how much of a pawn she is,” Brotherhead reflects on her role. “A lot of historians made the decision that because Jane was so quiet and mild-mannered, she was meek and a bit stupid, whereas Hilary doesn’t think that’s what Jane’s like at all; she’s quiet and incredibly observant.”

It would be easy to assume, given the precariousness of their position, that the three Queens were helpless to their fates. Briers, Leonard and Brotherhead, however, suggest that each of these women was powerful in her way. “Katherine is incredibly manipulative in terms of power playing because she was born into it and she understands it,” says Briers. “She understands the theatricality of power.” This political power is lacking in Anne, but Leonard points out that “she has an incredible power over Henry”. Jane, meanwhile, has a “quiet kind of power about her” according to Brotherhead: “she is incredibly brave, but in a very stoic and subdued way”.

In the process of getting to know the three Queens, each of the actors has forged a powerful connection with their role. “They’re amazing women, all three of them, and you can really connect with all of their decisions,” says Brotherhead. Faced with the pressure of not only doing justice to Mantel’s novels, but also capturing three of the most famous women in history, all three actors are dealing with this in different ways. “I feel more of a responsibility to the person I’m playing than anybody else,” says Briers. “I want to honour her.” Leonard, on the other hand, feels the weight of the books more keenly: “I personally feel more of a commitment to playing Hilary Mantel’s Anne Boleyn, because that’s what’s going to make this whole story turn.”

Mantel herself has been involved throughout the rehearsal process, offering extensive character notes and answering detailed questions about the period. “It was like having somebody from Tudor times time travelling to our rehearsal room,” Leonard laughs, acknowledging the meticulous research that went into the novels and has provided much of the material for shaping these three roles. “Rarely do you work with such amazing novels,” she adds. “Everything’s there.”

The Tudor era, as Mantel has demonstrated, is itself the source of continued fascination. Discussing the time in which these historical narratives are set, all three actors suggest that it is the heightened, theatrical quality of this period that captures the imagination. “There’s so much game playing and with so much at stake,” says Brotherhead. “I think that’s what’s so intriguing.” Considering Anne’s fate, Leonard adds that “the way that sex and politics are so totally linked together is juicy and powerful”. For Briers, however, and clearly for Mantel as well, it is the personalities who hold the greatest interest.

“It’s these people who just create ripples of change and revolutions, good or bad, that people want to keep re-examining.”

Photo: Keith Pattison.

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.

Ben Miles


Originally written for The Guardian.

When Hilary Mantel first introduces us to Thomas Cromwell, the wily social climber at the centre of her award-winning historical novels, he’s face down in a pool of his own blood. It’s possible to view the entire narrative that follows in Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies as Cromwell’s defiant rise, as he scrapes himself off the floor and ascends to the zenith of 16th-century politics.

“These plays are about how this man gets up on his feet having been on his knees and how far he goes,” says Ben Miles – the actor shrugging on Cromwell’s robes – of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s pair of stage adaptations, now transferred to London’s West End. Cromwell – “the original working-class hero, the original self-made man” according to Miles – is the scheming heart of the two stories, determinedly throwing off his humble origins and charming himself all the way to Henry VIII’s side. He’s a compelling figure, but one with a hard, ruthless streak.

“Morally, it’s very ambiguous,” says Miles, identifying this ambiguity as one of the attractions for him as an actor. “People are intrigued, they’re drawn in by this charismatic figure who drags himself up, but the means by which he does that are often dubious. There are lots of themes in these stories, but one of them is this idea of vengeance or retribution – how far do you carry that? When you’re finally in a position of power, what do you do with that power? Do you use it to settle old scores, or do you use it for the common good? Or do you do both? I think that’s what Cromwell finds himself doing. It’s an endlessly fascinating study of human character.”


Also fascinating is the wider Tudor context, and the fierce debates that still surround figures such as Cromwell, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. “I think these plays and these books have really held a light up to that period,” says Miles, who confesses to having been a huge fan of Mantel’s novels even before the RSC project arose. “Hilary’s rewritten the book as far as opinion about Thomas Cromwell is concerned,” he adds, describing the experience of bringing this reimagined character to life as “a great thrill”.

While Mike Poulton’s stage versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodiesare necessarily “streamlined”, stripping out a number of peripheral characters and subplots, Miles insists they remain faithful to the vivid character portraits in the books. “What the plays keep, I think, are the main arteries of the story,” he says. And, like Mantel’s novels, the plays succeed in marrying historical narratives with a very modern set of concerns and sensibilities.

“Politics, nationhood, religious fervour, extremism, European political machinations, the threat of war, how to get on in the world, the trials and tribulations of the self-made man – all these things, they’re things that concern us now and will always concern us,” he says. “It’s these things that make the plays contemporary, as well as period.”
Photo: Tristram Kenton.