THOMAS CROMWELL WALKS AGAIN. A NON-READER IS ENTRANCED.
“Between Christmas Day and Epiphany God permits the dead to walk”. So says Henry VIII, sleepless in the dawn, summoning his watchful fixer Cromwell to steer him through a political and religious quagmire. So, fittingly in this Epiphany week, the long-dead Tudor court too must walk again. Hilary Mantel’s two intensively researched, hugely praised novels reimagined the English Reformation around the figure of the lawyer and adviser Thomas Cromwell; now they are brought to the stage in an adaptation by Mike Poulton, under Jeremy Herrin’s direction.
They will have two audiences: those who loved the books, and those who stalled at Mantel’s stylistic density, gave up, and hope to be sent back to them. I am one such, and can speak only for those coming to it fresh, armed only with bare bones of history. And I was enraptured, from the first moments of bantering impatience between Paul Jesson’s flamboyant Cardinal Wolsey and Ben Miles as his devoted Cromwell. Danger fizzes in the air, evoking a world where an incautious word meant death; Cromwell reads Luther and Tyndale but must hide the books when Thomas More’s men come searching (memories arise of the marvellous Written On The Heart , here two years ago). This play takes us from the decline of Wolsey’s influence and the danger to his follower, through the intricacies of the King’s divorce and defiance of the Pope, to Boleyn’s first – but female – child, her miscarriage and Henry’s convenient doubts of her chastity. It ends with the defiance of Thomas More, previously caricatured as a fanatic but finally an honest stubborn martyr. Which underlines the subtle dramatic strength of this narrative: there are no out-and-out villains.
Snobs and fools, cynical hedonists, an impatient King, but no villains. Ben Miles is superb as Mantel’s rehabilitated vision of Cromwell: no scheming self-seeker but a modern politician stranded in an age of absolute monarchy and superstition, a self-made man of formidable intelligence, beaten child, adventurer across Europe. Poulton’s text is vigorous without anachronism and never archaic; fragments of Cromwell’s back-story which the novel’s readers may regret are filled in with casual skill in conversational asides. Herrin’s stagings, with never a sense of rush, makes pictures speak thousand words: the death of Cromwell’s wife, the downfall of Wolsey, brief simpering appearances of Jane Seymour prefiguring the King’s later marital disasters. Court dances are metaphors for shifting influence; religious moments are balanced between angry politics and thoughtful lines like Cromwell’s shrugging protestation that the Bible makes no mention of “Monks. Or nuns – or purgatory, or fasting – or relics or priests..I’ve never found where it says pope..”
Altogether, it crackles with political, emotional and psychological force. Lydia Leonard’s Boleyn is flirtatious and ferocious, shriller as her danger increases; Lucy Briers’ Katherine chillingly intense, Nathaniel Parker’s Henry bluff, arrogant, persuadable; John Ramm sullenly righeous as More. Mantel’s notes in the playscript are detailed and fascinating, but what is created before us onstage is something fresh: theatre’s miracle of collaboration.
And I would hate you to think there are no jokes. There’s an Ipswich joke, a dead rat joke, a chamberpot, and many dry lines. My favourite is Cromwell’s exasperated private desire to say to the half-separated King “Oh, sort it out, Harry, you’re the scandal of the parish!”
I write this after the first play. Later I will report on the sequel. So far, I am thrilled.
box office 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk