As I imagine I've mentioned many times before on this blog, Hilary Mantel is my favorite author and Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are my favourite books. Ever. (Sorry, A Song of Ice and Fire.)
Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way. Both books have legions of fans and have won the Booker prize. And now both have been adapted for stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company (and screen too - the BBC’s take is currently in production).
The phrase ‘adapted for’ is often enough to strike fear into the heart of book lovers, particularly when the book or series in question is one you really love, but when it’s done well it’s exhilarating to see the characters you love so much brought to life. It’s a risky business though, especially with books as popular and critically acclaimed as Mantel’s. I doubt I’d have been the only one who would've been devastated if these plays hadn't done justice to the books.
Thankfully, this isn't a concern: the plays are utterly, utterly fantastic.
Unusually for me, the first thing I want to rave about is the direction. The source books are long, there’s no getting away from this fact. There’s easily five or six hours of material in each and I was concerned about how this would be condensed into watchable plays. Obviously there are some cuts - mainly to secondary characters and their scenes - but the action is so swiftly paced that these are kept to a minimum. But the action doesn't feel at all rushed though, it just feels urgent. This sense of momentum is helped along by clever stage direction in which characters who are in successive scenes rarely actually leave the stage. They walked to the edge of it, turn round and come back, which sounds daft but actually really works in keeping the play pushing forward. The completely bare ‘concrete’ set helps here too - as there are no changes in scenery, and only the occasional prop, the idea of the characters entering and leaving different rooms or buildings is visually less important. Who cares if they go off stage or not?
With source material as good as these plays have, it would be deeply depressing if they weren't well written. And thankfully they are. Mantel writes excellent, punchy dialogue and much of this is incorporated wholesale into the script, which is uniformly brilliant. The thing that really struck me about the writing though was the difference in tone between Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. This is evident to an extent in the books but was really emphasised in the plays, with Wolf Hall being almost a knockabout comedy while Bring Up The Bodies something much darker. That’s an oversimplification of course, most of my blogs are, but there was a marked difference and it was worked very effectively, really adding depth to the characters’ development and story.
Excellent writing deserves excellent acting and these plays have the latter in spades. I said in a post earlier this week that My Night With Reg must have one of the best ensemble casts in London and surely Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, who share one cast, have the other. There’s not a single weak link amongst them, even though most also have the challenge of playing multiple roles (often multiple important roles too: the actor who plays Cardinal Wolsey in both plays also has Archbishop Warham in the first and Sir John Seymour and the jailer at the Tower of London in the second for example!) It feels rude to single any one person out from such an outstanding ensemble, but Nathaniel Parker and Lydia Leonard are a perfect Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn capturing with fantastic effect the arc of their relationship. Parker’s Henry was particularly good, I felt, in Bring Up The Bodies where he’s allowed to show a bigger range of emotion - from besotted to angry via afraid and injured (physically and emotionally).
The one person who it would be rude not to single out, though, is Ben Miles. His Thomas Cromwell is spectacular. It’s a huge part in terms of sheer amount of lines, he’s rarely off stage in the entirety of the almost six hours combined running time, but it’s even huger in terms of the range and depth of character. He plays Cromwell as an East End wide boy type - in no way how I imagined him but, if you think about it, exactly what he was - all quick wit and cunning. In Bring Up The Bodies the character effortlessly develops into something darker and more ruthless. Nothing about his performance feels forced or obvious, it feels natural and completely believable. It’s genuinely scintillating stuff to watch and a performance that demands attention (and surely some awards). I could rave about him for days but I imagine you’d all get bored and wander off. Suffice to say I was impressed, almost Branagh-levels of impressed.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, taken as one piece of work as they should be, is by some distance the most enjoyable, exciting and technically accomplished theatre I've seen in London this year. I would also recommend seeing the two plays in one day as I did because I can only imagine how awful the anticipation of seeing the second one is if you have to wait. I mean I only just lasted the three hours between matinee and evening. It’s really, genuinely great stuff that everyone - familiar with the book or otherwise - should definitely see.