The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 28th January, 2014
When I heard the RSC were adapting Hilary Mantel’s novels of doorstep proportion, I wondered if they had bitten off more than they could Tudor, but then I saw that it was Mike Poulton who was doing the adapting – he gave us a very enjoyable Canterbury Tales several years ago – so I knew we were in safe hands.
The first instalment covers much the same ground as Shakespeare’s very late play Henry VIII (or the first series of gaudy TV drama The Tudors). There is a sense of knowing, even foreboding about the enterprise; we know on whose side history’s favours will fall so there is plenty of nudge nudge wink wink dramatic irony at play.
It is also very funny. There is wryness to the dialogue and the characters are on the whole plain-speaking. We do not have to wade through dense verse or po-faced metaphor. The action is immediately accessible and with a three-hours running time, it needs to be!
Central to it all is Thomas Cromwell, a kind of go-to guy par excellence. His colourful past has given him the skills necessary to get just about anything done. And so he climbs the precarious ladder of Henry’s court. When we first meet him he is in the employ of the infamous Cardinal Wolsey (usually depicted as more of an out-and-out villain in this type of thing). Paul Jesson is very funny as this worldly clergyman. By contrast, John Ramm’s Thomas More is shown less warmly, very different from the admirable and unswerving man of principle in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons.
The whole cast is very strong but I’m going to be churlish and single out a few for special mentions. Daniel Fraser is sweet as Cromwell’s son Gregory, playing youth and innocence convincingly despite his full-grown adult frame. Pierro Niel Mee is bloody hilarious as Cromwell’s rat-catching French servant Christophe, and Nathaniel Parker is effortlessly majestic and charismatic as King Henry. I also enjoyed Oscar Pearce’s bejewelled fop George Boleyn and Lucy Briers’s Hispanic intensity as Katherine of Aragon.
The costumes are perfect, conveying the period in lieu of scenery and there is atmospheric music from composer Stephen Warbeck.
Cromwell hardly leaves the stage, which means we get to see his public, at-work face and his private grief, in an excellent turn by Ben Miles. Jeremy Herrin’s direction keeps the action moving. Cromwell only has to turn on his heels and the scene has changed, and there are some lovely touches and understated moments.
The show ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, compelling you to come back for the sequel. And I most definitely shall!