AND SO IT GOES ON…
“Intrigue feeds upon itself” says Thomas Cromwell, in the second part of this magnificent and terrifying chronicle. We find Anne Boleyn restless, fiercely frivolous, sensing the net closing around her, and Henry turning his eyes on Leah Brotherhead’s Jane Seymour: a pale, small, carefully chaste creature whose high sweet enunciation has just enough weirdness in it to make her seem a kind of sybil. More women to the fore now: closet gossip from sour Lady Rochford , wanton Lady Worcester and the camp young lutanist (Joey Batey) who once played for Wolsey and now haunts the rustling chambers of the |Queen. And more street rumours – comic, dangerous, revealing – from Piero Niel Mee as Cromwell’s rascally French servant.
Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More are ghosts now: ironic, strolling across the stage in Cromwell’s troubled memory. The Earls of Suffolk and Norfolk are more crudely bombastic than ever, the Boleyn tribe on the defensive, and Cromwell himself depended on by the King. He is forced into ever twistier manoeuvres to serve that royal terror: indeed there were moments during his interrogation of Boleyn’s supposed lovers when our hero seemed – uneasily, shockingly – to be corrupting like a slow-burning Macbeth.
But then subtle regret, pain and old resentments cross Ben Miles’ expressive face beneath the sober puritan cap, and you ache again for a man too thoughtful, practical and sceptical for a vainglorious court and whimsical dictator. Terrible for any man of conscience to have say flatly to a shocked son: “Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of your enemy, his destruction must be swift. It must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought…his dog answering your whistle!”.
Despite brief moments when the telescoping of dense narrative threatened to be a touch Blackadderish, it was impossible not to be borne along. One caveat: for non-readers of the novels this seond play might not stand alone with clarity as the first does. Best to arrive clear about the history and narrative of the first part. Tremendous storytelling, though, on any terms: and a vivid evocation of a monarch threatened on all sides: from a Catholic Europe outraged by the exile of Queen Katherine, from arrogant noble families at home jockeying for position. Meanwhile theologians like Cranmer (Giles Taylor) tell him that power descends to the King from God, while pragmatists like Cromwell quietly know that it only rises from the uncertain docility of a hungry populace.
Thus an oversimplified patch of history becomes fresh, and the RSC demonstrates its high worth and staunch values. I am not the only one who left this double day, after six hours and two plays, saying that if Hilary Mantel had yet written the third – and Poulton and Herrin presented it – we would willingly have stayed till dawn.
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rating: four .
Except that if you see both plays, somehow it adds up to a triumphant