Tapping into the current craze for all things Tudor, I’ll kick off with some memories of seeing the RSC’s Wolf Hall at the Aldwych Theatre in September 2014. My anticipation about seeing this production was as large as one of Henry VIII’s codpieces and I’m happy to say, I was not unsatisfied (unlike most of Henry’s wives…)
A trio of memorable performances from Ben Miles (Thomas Cromwell), Nathaniel Parker (Henry VIII) and Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn) provided a strong focus round which the rest of the excellent cast and the director, Jeremy Herrin, created a dark, treacherous world where life was cheap and all were in thrall to the monarch. Parker was especially effective in conveying Henry’s petulant side and his terrifying capriciousness.
Ben Miles gave a charismatic performance, his persuasive subtle manner in the King’s court never totally eradicating Cromwell’s shady past and rough upbringing. This was undoubtably a man who could slip a dagger between someone’s ribs just as easily as he could slip reassuring words into Henry’s ears.
The precarious position of women in the Tudor court, at the mercy of husbands, fathers, uncles and brothers came across strongly. Lucy Briers was dignified and steely as Katherine of Aragon, implacable in her belief that she and Henry remained married. She was matched in implacability by Lydia Leonard as Anne, utterly single-minded in her goal to become Queen of England. Cross her at your peril, Cromwell, and God help you if you don’t deliver what she wants…
Anne’s glittering dresses and the jewel coloured gowns worn by her women courtiers contrasted with the dark heavy robes of Henry’s aristocratic advisers. The stark set was subtly lit, with creative touches, like fireplaces emerging from the floor. Both set and costumes were designed by Christopher Oram, creating a completely believable complex, claustrophobic court.
Having read Hilary Mantel’s original novel, I was intrigued to see how the book, which is written from Cromwell’s internal perspective, could be successfully adapted for action on stage. Mike Poulton did a tremendous job, using dark humour at times which I did not remember from the book but which was certainly appreciated, especially when Mark Smeaton and his lute were told where to go in no uncertain terms by an exasperated Cromwell…
A particularly memorable scene was the masque put on by young courtiers mocking Cromwell’s beloved Cardinal Wolsey, portraying him as the Devil, complete with flames. I am always a sucker for ‘play within a play’ scenes – thanks to early exposure to Bottom and the Mechanicals in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – so this was one of my favourite moments, as well as all the courtly dancing scenes (never mind what Smeaton was doing with his lute…)