Newspaper article International New York Times

A Tudor Soap Opera, Adapted for the Stage ; Royal Shakespeareans Bring Some Light to Dark Novels of Hilary Mantel

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Tudor Soap Opera, Adapted for the Stage ; Royal Shakespeareans Bring Some Light to Dark Novels of Hilary Mantel

Article excerpt

Her best-selling works about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII are in a two-part production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon- Avon.

Thomas Cromwell, the guileful right hand to King Henry VIII, was said to be fluent in many tongues and adept at double talk in all of them. But I imagine even he would be impressed by the act of translation that is taking place in his name at the Swan Theater here.

Hilary Mantel's best-selling shadow-steeped and highly nuanced novels about Cromwell, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," have been reincarnated by the Royal Shakespeare Company into a bright, bustling political soap opera that condenses more than a thousand pages of fiction into two plays and a brisk six hours of stage time. You might say that Ms. Mantel's books, which seem to take place within a shroud of fog and darkness, have been brought into the open daylight.

So has anything been lost in translation? Yes, of course. As a novelist, Ms. Mantel is a master of peripheral vision, of sideways glimpses and doubling-back narratives that make you feel that the past is always tickling the present from behind.

A description of Cromwell's philosophy of self-promotion from the book "Wolf Hall" also suggests the tantalizing tone of Ms. Mantel's novels: "A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires."

That gap has been closed in the Royal Shakespeare Company's stage versions, adapted by the playwright Mike Poulton (with Ms. Mantel's full cooperation) and the director Jeremy Herrin. The labyrinthine twists of consciousness in the books, which are told mostly from Cromwell's perspective, have been ironed into crisp, straight lines.

No one, including Cromwell himself (played by Ben Miles), is much of a deceiver here, at least from the audience's point of view. Aside from a few instances of graceful, illusory stagecraft -- including a lovely scene in which an execution morphs into a wedding celebration -- what you see is more or less what you get.

Yet, when you consider that what you see is a tale of the separation of church and state as it evolved five centuries ago, played out by an immense cast of characters, such unblinking clarity is a virtue. The Cromwell plays are more a triumph of condensation than of the imagination. But there is enthralling theatrical energy within this efficiency.

Designed with spare sets and opulent costumes by Christopher Oram, these are true works of popular theater, enlivened by simply realized splashes of pageantry and vibrant performances -- especially Nathaniel Parker's portrait of a mercurial Henry VIII -- that hold the attention. They also manage to juggle a colorful assortment of socio-economic themes without sounding like a patronizing history teacher.

Of course, the stories told here have been told many times as popular entertainment, from Shakespeare on. The last century has given us a flood of film and theater versions, including the drolly sensational 1933 movie "The Private Life of Henry VIII," starring Charles Laughton, and stately costume dramas like "Anne of a Thousand Days" and "A Man for All Seasons." Henry's crises of amour and statesmanship have also proved eminently suitable to television serialization, in shows like "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" and the recent "The Tudors." (A six-part BBC Two adaptation of the Mantel novels, starring Mark Rylance, is in the offing.)

Ms. Mantel made familiar material fresh by seeing it through the eyes of Cromwell, often portrayed as the villain to another adviser of Henry VIII, the sainted Thomas More. Cromwell, son of a blacksmith whose political ascension mirrors an increasing social mobility in England, was a former soldier-for-hire of infinite resourcefulness. He is more than once described in Ms. …

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