Wolf Hall – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Hilary Mantel

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 20th January 2014

Knowing these adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s work were coming up, I chose to read Wolf Hall before seeing the plays, and intend to read Bring Up The Bodies afterwards. I wanted to get a sense of how the dramatization had changed the novel’s interpretation, and to understand what it’s like to see a play when I’ve already read the book. Of course, that assumed I would finish Wolf Hall, and at one point I thought I might abandon the book altogether – the middle third was tedious compared to the opening section – but fortunately some friends advised me to persevere. The final section picked up tempo and left us with a tantalising ending, so how would reading the book beforehand affect my experience of the play?

At first I found the play hard to get into; Thomas Cromwell is so well drawn in the novel that it would be hard to put anything like that amount of detail into any stage version. His background is very important to the story, explaining his attitude to life, religion and politics, while also colouring the way others treat him. We did start to get glimpses of his back story as the play went on, but with only three and a quarter hours to cover the ground, the play had to crack on and throw us straight into the political manoeuvring. Once I adjusted to that, and ‘caught up’ with the performance, I had no problems at all, and Mike Poulton has certainly captured not only the essence of Hilary Mantel’s characters but the humour of the novel as well. The sense of danger, of constantly having to look behind in case some rival or enemy is about to deliver a killer blow, is missing, or perhaps just not as strong, but that’s a reasonable price to pay when the rest of the work is so well represented. Some of the characters have been dropped, naturally – if you particularly like ‘Call-me’ you’ll be disappointed here – but as that was part of the problem in the sections of the novel which I found tedious – too many characters and too many ‘to-do’ lists – I was happy that the number had been trimmed to a manageable level. Even so, many of the cast of twenty-one must have been keeping fit, running around backstage to get changed and back on as another character.

The set was kept very plain to assist in quick scene changes. From our position in gallery one, we had a grand view of not very much: the floor of the stage was plain although there were three distinct sections marked out, with the middle section having what looked like studs spaced out lengthwise down the middle. At the back I could dimly make out some lines across the back wall; these later sprang to life with inset lighting to form a large cross, and were actually gaps formed by having four square panels mounted on the brickwork leaving spaces between. It was quite effective, especially as the variations in the lights created a textured effect like the bark of a tree. There was also a tiled or cobbled area behind the stage between the side entrances, at the back of which was the barbecue – a line of flames could leap up from there for assorted purposes. Apart from this the stage was bare, and although a few items of furniture were brought on occasionally, the actors had to do most of the scene-setting themselves. (While I like this sort of thing normally, I did find the bland nature of the stage floor rather boring. Hopefully it won’t matter so much when we’re at ground level.)

The band were up on the top balcony in the middle, and did a grand job throughout the performance, although before the start they were making those dreadfully irritating droning noises – why do productions do this? Eventually a drum started beating and the characters trooped on stage, forming up in lines. This was followed by some circular walking in relays – God knows what that was about – before a proper dance, with proper music, started up at the back of the stage. Non-essential characters cleared themselves off stage and the dance came forward, but as we didn’t know who was who at this point I have no useful insights to offer on this bit. I did notice one young lady flirting with one young gentleman and then going off with him, but I have no idea if that was meant to indicate anything or not. (I must remember to watch more closely next time in case it’s Anne Boleyn going off with Harry Percy.)

The flames at the back flared up for the first scene proper to represent the fire in Cardinal Wolsey’s study. Thomas Cromwell was just back from a trip to Yorkshire to try and wrestle some money out of the monasteries for the Cardinal’s pet projects. Henry’s lack of a son and the king’s preference for Leviticus over Deuteronomy were discussed, and from there we were soon into the question of which lady would receive an emerald ring from Henry? We had a quick glimpse of Thomas More flogging himself beneath the lighted cross – a quick glimpse was more than enough, believe me – and soon Henry himself was addressing the audience, as members of the court, regarding the question of his ‘marriage’ to Katherine.

There were also brief glimpses of Thomas Cromwell’s private life, and after one conversation with his wife, he held out his hand behind him for her to take it and she walked all the way round behind him and off the stage at the front, dropping her prayer book on the way. It was a moving moment, representing her sudden death, and had me sniffling.

The first half ended shortly after the scene of Cromwell’s first meeting with Anne Boleyn. He made her laugh, and she clearly saw there was more to him than most men. When she left, the littlest lady-in-waiting came back to call Mary Boleyn to her sister, and then stayed to express her condolences to Cromwell for the loss of his wife. When he asked her name, she replied “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour”. And with that, the lights went out and they took the interval.

The second half started with a business meeting at which the king was clearly bored – he wanted to go off hunting – and continued with the machinations involved in getting Henry divorced and remarried (or whatever) to Anne. At one point there was a parody of Wolsey and four devils; a backdrop of a devil’s mouth came down in front of the balcony, and the flames were turned on again to represent the fires of hell. Shortly afterwards, Wolsey was arrested and did not survive the journey back to London for his trial.

The arguments over the validity of Henry’s first ‘marriage’ still raged, and the cart holding the paperwork was getting fuller each time it was wheeled on. Harry Percy was still causing trouble, and it took some strong-arm tactics from Cromwell to sort the lad out; he might be Earl of Northumberland, but he had to give way to the forcefulness of the blacksmith’s son. When Archbishop Warham, bent double with age, tried to pick up the large Bible for Percy to swear his final oath he almost collapsed under its weight, which was very funny.

Anne was soon pregnant, and there was a dance combined with a baby shower, as the dancers came forward carrying presents for the little baby boy. The final couple brought on a crib, and that was left near the front of the stage while the court handled the tricky announcement that the baby was a girl. The king took it pretty well on the whole – at least it was a healthy baby – and was quickly convinced that the next one would be a boy.

With one child safely delivered, Anne began throwing her weight around, regardless of Henry’s preferences, and it was easy to see that she would have very few friends when she needed them. The prospect of a son and heir kept the king tame for a while, but when she lost her second baby the writing was on the wall.

The long-winded attempts to get Thomas More to swear the oath (of loyalty to the new queen and her children) were condensed into one short scene, and I liked More’s opening greeting to those present (Cranmer, Norfolk, Cromwell, Suffolk) – “Thomas. Thomas. Thomas. Charles”. It got a good laugh too.

Finally Cromwell had a chat with the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey, outlining his (Cromwell’s) vision for England. Then the king spoke to him – as he was standing on the walkway underneath us I couldn’t see him – and told Cromwell of his fears and asked what he should do. Just then Jane Seymour came on and stood to one side of the stage, looking at the king and with a spotlight on her. The end.

There was a lot more to the performance than I’ve covered in these notes – too much information and so little time. One bit of staging I liked was the use of a simple bench to suggest a boat on the river. Two people would sit on the bench with two others standing behind and perhaps someone else behind them. All the characters would rock with the movement of the river, and on one occasion there was also some rain. Simple, but effective. All the performances were excellent, and we’re looking forward to seeing Bring Up The Bodies later in the week.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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