BWW Reviews: WOLF HALL, Aldwych Theatre, May 17 2014
I've always felt that the best and (as I have grown older) the clinching argument for the British Monarchy is that it removes the necessity to think - or, heaven forfend, vote - for a Head of State. Advances in health have removed most, if not quite all, the terrifying risks of childbirth for both mother and baby, and bizarre though it is to retain primogeniture in the (still) United Kingdom, nobody would object to a princess's promotion to monarch these days. So the succession in the 21st century is more a subject for black comedy (see King Charles III) than a matter of life and death. It was not always so.
When Captain Blackadder called for a plan that was "as cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University" he may well have had Thomas Cromwell in mind. The blacksmith's boy from Putney - an insult thrown at him that becomes a compliment (just how smart do you need to be to travel so far, so fast in the 1500s?) - is a fixer: a man who can get hold of stuff and get rid of stuff; including people if needs be. As his mentor Cardinal Wolsey's star fades with his failure to free King Henry from his embittered wife Catherine (childless save for Princess Mary, who doesn't count at all), Cromwell seizes his chance to engineer Henry's desired match with Anne Boleyn, stabbing a few enemies in the back and bringing an English bible to England en route. Cunning indeed.
Mike Poulton's adaptation hurtles through six years at the Court of St James in three hours of plotting and politicking. Like all the best historical fiction, it animates the familiar portraits (written and painted) and makes these names and faces human again, vulnerable and virtuous before our very eyes. Ben Miles' Cromwell emanates an almost obscene cleverness, sometimes barely able to stifle his smirks at the stupidity of others. But this is no caricature - Miles captures Cromwell's trauma at the death of his wife and two young girls in a London epidemic and, though seldom anything other than completely self-possessed, this Cromwell never forgets the stakes - which are as high as they come. Mr Miles may well gather a clutch of awards to rival Ms Mantel's, so good is he in making us love and fear Cromwell - as so many once did.
If Mr Miles is utterly compelling, there's plenty more to admire in a uniformly splendid cast. Nathaniel Parker's King Henry can be as jovial as Sid James's in Carry On Henry (see how deep this stuff goes in our culture?), but bares his teeth when his royal arrogance is challenged, showing just enough to suggest that Anne Boleyn will be more victim than wife. Lydia Leonard's features slowly harden, as Anne's ruthless pursuit of the crown metastasises from ambition to hubris, her promises of a male heir proving one gamble too far. Paul Jesson dominates the opening scenes, his cynical, funny, alas ageing, Wolsey unable to pull the King's strings as once he did, an exile despite remaining a favourite. Icy, hurt and with the look of cold steel that suggests that Cromwell, who could judge character, was not wrong in claiming that she would have made a great general in war, Lucy Briers defines the danger of a woman scorned as the rejected Catherine of Aragon.
On a plain set of grey marble walls suggesting the grey Northern European weather, so different from that of Rome (and differences with Rome underpin every scene), director Jeremy Herrin maintains the claustrophobic atmosphere one finds in courts the world over. Anna Josephs' costumes are beautiful to behold, telling us much about the vanities of those who don them. Paul Constable's lighting design - so often the biggest difference between the West End and the Fringe - is worth the ticket price alone, as good in its manipulation of shade as I have seen in any production.
The Royal Shakespeare Company's work at the Aldwych has reminded me of the BBC's celebrated adaptation of events in the court of Ancient Rome - I, Claudius. That was so good, I read Robert Graves' two volumes twice. I may well do the same with Ms Mantel's.