completing a magnificent theatrical hat-trick, actor Ben Miles and director Jeremy Herrin triumphantly bring Hilary Mantel’s third and final novel about Henry VIII’s fixer Thomas Cromwell to the stage. It’s an urgent, propulsive journey through the dense thickets of Tudor court politics, and a larger rumination of what happens when indispensableity becomes a handicap rather than an asset. Herrin directs with admirable clarity and economy, and the narrative is propelled by Miles as the mobile upward Cromwell and by Nathaniel Parker’s wayward man-child king.
It’s been seven years since this creative team and many returning actors first staged Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for RSC in Stratford, before wowing London and Broadway. Some things have changed. Miles, like many of us, is grayer and darker. This time, he and Mantel cut out and rationalized his 883-page book; playwright Mike Poulton did the first two. Henry crossed two women in the first two tales. Here he marries three, although afflicted with lameness, in at least two senses of the word.
There is an even greater sense of impending mortality, dysfunction and instability this time around. Designer Christopher Oram recreates his striking ensemble of brutalist concrete slabs dominated by a recessed cross. As for contemporary echoes … take your pick from English exceptionalism, conflicts with Europe and unrest in the North. However, Henry’s kingdom no longer has continental alum to fuel the wool trade, rather than real fuel.
Like the book, the piece would need a cut. The interweaving of families and factions is devilishly complicated but even if you don’t know exactly who each character is, you still know which side they’re on and what they hope to gain. It’s populated by a huge and vastly powerful ensemble, although some performances go astray in the caricature.
Melissa Allan as Mary Tudor and Olivia Marcus as Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard make strong impressions in a necessarily macho show. Nicholas Woodeson is splendid in the role of the scheming Duke of Norfolk, Tony Turner very funny in that of the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey: “Dominus vobiscum – just passing through.” This dead clergyman even makes a few shots in the background of a courteous costume ball.
But in reality, it all revolves around Miles’ Cromwell, knotting strangling knots, intrigue and promises on an upward trajectory that must end. And Henry de Parker, who proves that unlimited power does not entail any liability, fiscal, social or moral. It is beautifully framed, revealed in the light of a blazing fire or surrounded by ripples of obsequious heads.
“I’m done here,” Cromwell says at the end, and you feel Mantel, Herrin, and Miles echoing him. And it is very well done too.