The Mirror and the Light at Gielgud Theatre
A rapid-fire adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s final installation in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy provides an entertaining burst of historical fiction at the Gielgud.
Mantel and Ben Miles (a veteran thespian but most famous for his roles in Coupling and V for Vendetta) team up again for the final stage in the story that started with Wolf Hall. Male heirs are the name of the game in The Mirror and the Light, but at the same time, Europe is a political minefield with various powers not too happy with King Henry VIII and England. Henry’s loyal advisor Thomas Cromwell pieces together clever schemes, but must ultimately face his bleakest hour.
A 1000-page novel into a two-and-half-hour play? One would think it wasn’t possible. But Mantel and Miles have stripped things right back, hitting the main events but cutting huge amounts of the in-between – and they’ve managed to do this without once running into pacing problems. Remarkably, the result doesn’t feel rushed at any point. Of course, it twists the show towards light entertainment more than the source material was, giving the audience a slightly different, but no less enjoyable experience. They play to this with a sprinkling of subtle punchlines that make the production a lot funnier than expected.
Miles, reprising his role as Cromwell, is brilliant, as is Nathaniel Parker (of Inspector Lynley fame) as Henry VIII. Some of the other performances, or more specifically the accents, feel a little over-the-top, but, probably because of the RSC’s influence, it is a very theatrical show from start to finish and the occasional ostentation seems to be a deliberate choice. Nonetheless, Miles and Parker’s slightly less in-your-face portrayals are the more enjoyable to watch.
The real genius lies in the lighting. When the brief is “the set will be an unchanging grey room without any props but we need it to look and feel like a number of distinct castles, chambers, manors, churches, prison cells, etc”, one would forgive the lighting designer for not quite achieving it. But here there is the perfect response to this seemingly impossible ask with the clever lighting design transforming the set into various locations all by itself.
The Mirror and the Light is a great bit of historical fiction for those who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s a lighter, more fun edition of Mantel’s story that gives the audience a reason to consume both – although it’s certainly not far enough away from the original to convert anyone who wouldn’t usually be interested.
Photos: Marc Brenner
The Mirror and the Light is at Gielgud Theatre from 23rd September until 23rd January 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.