Wolf Hall at the Aldywch
The highly anticipated RSC production of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall is upon us. It’s the early 1500s and Henry VIII has tired of his older wife; his trusted councillor Cardinal Wolsey cannot provide the solution and so steps in the ambitious, brooding Thomas Cromwell.
We all know the story; what we didn’t know was how rich this interpretation could be. With a set that’s bleak, grey and industrial, Jeremy Herrin has tightly directed a play that captures the thrusting power play of the 16th century from the outset. It grasps the theatrical essence of life in the Tudor court – the humorous asides, the in jokes, the blatant sexism – which culminates in a charming, witty and downright rousing piece of theatre.
Opening with a frivolous dance that belies its temper and gravitas, Wolf Hall is all-encompassing and consistently amusing. Staying true to Mantel’s vision of Cromwell and, indeed, Tudor England, swift scene changes keep the pace crisp: this is a rounded history with a human focus. The staging is clever and multifaceted: inclusive of the audience, the set is home, palace, prison – oppressive, cold and consuming. And the acting cannot be faulted. No one actor stands out here: every move, every line is measured and delivered with ease, grace and astonishing attention to detail.
Cromwell (Ben Miles) – the Del Boy of the King’s counsel – is likeable despite himself, Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) is steadfast and aggressive, and Paul Jesson’s Wolsey is simply fantastic. This realisation of a sensational piece of writing is incredibly sensitive and sympathetic to the men at the centre of the storm, with the exception of Stephen Gardiner (Matthew Pidgeon) who is deliciously contemptible – in life and in this incarnation.
One can’t help but feel that Aldwych Theatre, the old seat of the RSC, does not do this production justice – it might be better suited to the fitting Globe or the intimacy of the Donmar. But no matter. It grows darker in the second half: placing the historical events in context in this production makes them bizarrely run of the mill, and all the more chilling for it. Complex personalities clash and complement each other in an increasing game of manipulation. There is ultimate focus on the story with no fancy theatrical tricks, which makes for an absorbing spectacle.
In everything, Henry (Nathaniel Parker) trumps all, the villain of the piece. Towards the end of the play the dialogue takes a turn, and it’s heart rate-raising stuff. Animated, intense and sexually charged, Wolf Hall is everything it had the potential to be and more. Repeated accusations of “who are you?” directed at Cromwell underplay his place at the centre of this theatrical universe. The ending is abrupt, leaving the narrative on a knife edge – as much now as it was then.
Photo: Keith Pattison
Wolf Hall is at Aldwych Theatre until 6th September 2014, for further information or to book visit here.
Read our review of sequel Bring Up the Bodies here.