Magazine article The Spectator

Putney Boy Come Good

Magazine article The Spectator

Putney Boy Come Good

Article excerpt

Wolf Hall; Bring Up the Bodies Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, in rep until 29 March Three things you might not expect of the RSC's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Tudor novels. First, Mike Poulton's plays have some great jokes. Laugh-your-head-off funny, you might say. Second, although Tom, Dick and Mary tell me they found Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies a more enjoyable read, Wolf Hall is the better play. Finally, the reinvention of the brutal Thomas Cromwell as someone you would have liked is, in the plays, a source of weakness as much as strength.

Not that these are weak plays: six hours is a long time to spend on a theatre seat, yet I would happily see these plays back-to-back again tomorrow. They are beautifully staged, and many simple, wonderfully lit images linger in the memory: a funeral in the snow, a barge being rowed silently down the Thames in the rain. The costumes are Tudor, the language crisp and modern, many performances are outstanding: in particular Lucy Briers, who plays a wonderfully formidable Katherine of Aragon and a memorably venomous Jane Rochford, sister-in-law of Anne Boleyn.

The history is, well, dodgy. But these are works of fiction, drawn from works of fiction, and what matters is whether the inventions are successful. For the most part they are. The story, from Henry VIII falling in love with Anne Boleyn, to her death on the scaffold, holds you to the end and leaves you wanting more: a third play adapted from the yet-to-be completed final book of Mantel's trilogy. But I hope Cromwell's heroic status passes and that his victims are drawn more sympathetically than they are here.

The Cromwell of Wolf Hall is a lean, mean Putney boy come good. The son of a brutal drunk, he is a reformed thug, a loving family man who is also a devoted servant to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. Ben Miles's performance as Cromwell delivers both menace and warmth, in particular in the scenes with his openhearted son Gregory. But what we don't see in the plays is the real Cromwell, whom an audience would find hard to like. His darker deeds are either ignored or played down, with Thomas More and Anne Boleyn the principal victims of the whitewash.

More despises the Cardinal, whom he calls 'the most corrupt priest in Christendom'. But in Wolf Hall we see that More has none of Wolsey's humanity. A self-flagellating masochist, a cruel fanatic who approves of burning heretics, he is intent on suppressing Tyndale's English translation of the bible. …

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