BWW Reviews: BRING UP THE BODIES, Aldwych Theatre, May 17 2014
Every school pupil knows (or will know soon if Michael Gove gets his way) that Henry VIII's wives were seen off via "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived", so it's difficult for director Jeremy Herrin to generate the same level of suspense as he did so spectacularly in the "first volume" of this double bill, Wolf Hall (reviewed here). Nevertheless, Mike Poulton has woven Hilary Mantel's second novel of the promised trilogy into another sensationally impressive piece of theatre.
We pick up the action - helped by a little reminder of how we got here - with Henry married to Anne Boleyn but still without the male issue he craves. Ominously, the King's head has already been turned by Jane Seymour, meaning that Thomas Cromwell must fix things yet again for his Lord and Master: bad for him, but worse for the Queen's favourite courtiers, whose dalliances with her give Cromwell the ammunition he needs to see the job through. Anne's fate we all know.
Older, even wiser, but a little more infected by the court's intriguing, this Cromwell has echoes of Michael Corleone seeking to end his troubles with the Five Families. Ben Miles gives him a weariness to go with his enhanced ruthlessness (as Pacino did for Michael) and he's less inclined to smile indulgently at the foolishness of others when he can foresee the time when he will present their death warrants for signature. If Cromwell believed that he had a soul, it would have been hollowed out by too much plotting and too much desire to do down those who did down his mentor, Wolsey.
Lydia Leonard's Anne is always angry, not so much at the fact that every day does not turn out to be the same as her coronation day, but because she sees her power waning and can do nothing to slow the spiralling towards her date with destiny. Leah Brotherhead hides Jane Seymour's canny intelligence behind an initially outward gawkishness and sing-song speech (I swear I expected her to blurt out, "This one time, at bandcamp" at any moment) but proves her mettle when nobody dare touch the king to wake him - she just pokes him on the hand like she would a snoring dog.
It's a bloodbath in the end, of course, but it's hard to feel too much sympathy for the foolish lovers of the Queen - what did they expect for heaven's sake? - but Cromwell earns his long established reputation as a villainous schemer, rather than the charismatic problem-solver he presented in Wolf Hall. At the centre of things - inevitably - stands the King (Nathaniel Parker), who seems driven half-mad by lust and half-mad by his obsession with fathering a legitimate male heir. Sometimes, when one hears that a person comes from an "old family", it may not be a praiseworthy matter.