Wolf Hall (RSC)

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novel opened at the Swan Theatre yesterday

Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard
Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard
© Alastair Muir

As someone with a lifelong interest in the world of Tudor England, I was eager to read Wolf Hall when it was first published. And to this day, the hefty hardback tome is sat on my shelves occasionally giving me a reproving look for not having finished reading it. I know Hilary Mantel has won many plaudits for her Tudor novels, but I have always found reading them a less than pleasurable experience. So it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I approached this adaptation.

Thankfully Mike Poulton‘s script brings the intrigues and political machinations to the stage with clarity, wit and plenty of very welcome humour. Each of the characters emerge with clearly defined personalities and it keeps the action moving whilst never feeling as if the audience in being short-changed in terms of the intricacies of the plot. I would dare to say that this is one of the strongest adaptations Poulton has done for the Royal Shakespeare Company – and given his past successes with works such as The Canterbury Tales – that is quite some achievement.

The adaptation is served by a very strong production from Jeremy Herrin. He brings a simplicity and fluidity to the staging which serves the fast moving action very well. It would have been easy to overburden the stage with Tudor clutter and business but he resists this with an almost spare aesthetic that serves to highlight the story and characters rather than making the production the focus of our attention.

Christopher Oram’s elegant design of stone and bare plaster is lit to perfection by Paule Constable. It is a very muted palette but one that is absolutely right for the subtle shifts of mode as well as the larger movement between the many locations in the play. Add to this some sumptuous costumes and a well-pitched score and you have yet another example of the RSC technical and creative teams coming together to deliver an exemplary piece of work.

In terms of performances, it is very much a tour-de-force for Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. He is rarely off-stage but only moves centre stage when absolutely necessary. He is a brilliant political operator, a chancer who can sometimes not quite believe his own luck. But he is also a man aware of his own flaws and his own humanity. All of this is brought to life in a very watchable and engaging performance.

Paul Jesson‘s Wolsey is a wonderful creation. Ebullient, worldy and corpulent, he is a man brought down by his own ambition – but manages to still remain very sympathetic. Nathaniel Parker could quite easily have relied on stereotype as King Henry – but again makes him a man with passions, fears and hopes. It is very much the trademark of this production that each character is made into a real human being – not just an actor in a period drama.

Amongst the supporting cast, Pierro Niel Mee has great fun as Cromwell’s rogueish French servant Christophe and Olivia Darnley makes much of the mischevous side of Mary Boleyn. However they are far from alone in bringing the smaller roles to life.

After so much to admire, it might feel slightly confusing as to why this is not a 5 star review. A lot of that comes down to the lack of real tension we feel with regards to the action. The story we are being shown (so masterfully) is one that the vast majority of the audience know well. We know these characters, we know how things end for them. It is almost impossible for any adaptation or director to overcome this. For all the freshness in Mantel’s approach by looking at the court of King Henry from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, we still know how it all plays out and consequently our engagement in the fate of the participants in going to be diminished.

Without a doubt, this is a very good production of an excellent script – with some strong performances. Given that the entire run is nearly sold out, it is clear that there is plenty of others who share my passion for all things Tudor. They will not be disappointed.

Read our review of the RSC's other Mantel adaptation which also opened yesterday, Bring up the Bodies