Taking two massive novels (both in terms of length and popular success) and adapting them for the stage is a major undertaking. The Royal Shakespeare Company have a great track record in this field and with the new productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, they are adding further lustre to their reputation.
Wolf Hall is a very good production but I have to say that Bring up the Bodies is potentially a great one. I think it is important to view these plays as individual pieces of theatre - as it is possible that many audience members will only get to see one of them (the demand for tickets is so high that the option of seeing both now is extremely limited - unless the productions transfer to the West End ...)
Where Mike Poulton's script for Bring up the Bodies succeeds is in bringing real drama to the well-known story of Henry VIII's travails with his various wives. Wolf Hall, whilst it is an accomplished piece of script writing, struggles to break free from the shackles of our knowledge of the period - but Bring Up the Bodies takes those facts and weaves them into a tense drama as we watch the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the equally enthralling exploration of how Thomas Cromwell's actions and motives are brought more clearly into the spotlight.
Jeremy Herrin's assured direction is characterized by his clarity of focus and the elegant simplicity of the staging. It is a fast-moving narrative with 34 scenes over the three hours of the running time. Only once does the pace start to sag and that is in the sequence where Cromwell is interrogating those accused of misdeeds with the Queen. Whilst there are differences in his approach to the four men in question, there needs to be a tightening of this section in order to keep driving the action with the same sense of purpose which pervades the rest of the production.
With the same cast and near-enough the same creative team as with Wolf Hall, the same strengths of the stage presentation and high quality ensemble acting are to be found in Bring Up the Bodies. Ben Miles again is in absolute control of the stage as Cromwell. His moral framework is more fully explored in the text and as a result we do question his actions a lot more. It is a very well written role - and one he inhabits with complete confidence.
I believe Poulton, Herrin and Hilary Mantel have produced something quite special here. It is an intelligent, fresh and dramatic retelling of a very familiar period of history. The production is uncluttered and direct whilst remaining absolutely authentic in terms of period feel. And the writing is first class - a real gem of a script for audience and actors alike.
Whilst you probably do get the best out of the narrative arc by seeing both plays, if I had to pick it would be Bring Up the Bodies that I would recommend. It works as a stand-alone piece of drama that satisfies on nearly every level.
The West End should beckon for these productions - or perhaps they will hold off until they can present the full Cromwell trilogy. Hilary Mantel - over to you...
Read our review of the RSC's other Mantel adaptation which also opened yesterday, Wolf Hall