Bring Up The Bodies – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Mike Poulton from the novel by Hilary Mantel

Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 23rd January 2014

My experiment with these novels and plays has borne fruit. While Steve, not having read the books at all, would have rated this play slightly higher than me, I found the lack of background knowledge a hindrance for the first half, and although I picked up the threads quite quickly, the brisk pace left me feeling unsatisfied – I was too aware that there was a lot of detail missing and as I haven’t yet read the novel, I wasn’t privy to Cromwell’s inner thoughts. The final stage of the experiment will be to read Bring Up The Bodies and see what that feels like now that I’ve seen the play.

Of course it’s still only a one-off; while all adaptations/dramatizations will inevitably change the material to some extent to make it work on a stage, Hilary Mantel has been so involved in this adaptation that the end result was always likely to be much more faithful to her novels than if she hadn’t been (the upcoming TV adaptation may well corroborate this). At least now I can better understand the complaints of people who don’t like some adaptation or other because it doesn’t live up to their personal experience of the book. Unfortunately there’s no remedy for this, but we can take comfort from the fact that the book(s) will still be available to read when the stage has gone dark.

Enough philosophising already – what about the play? The previous episode left us with the king distraught over his lack of a male heir and Jane Seymour starting to catch his eye. Cromwell was the King’s secretary, and while he didn’t have a title he was more the ruler of the kingdom than Henry. What would happen next?

The pre-play droning was the same as before, and again the cast trooped on and lined up at the start. This time one of the cast read out a poem about hunting – was it Thomas Wyatt? – while walking between the others, and then most of the cast left the stage to Wolsey’s ghost who swayed a bit to the music. Then some huntsmen came on, waved their weapons about a bit and left. These were followed by the four devils who had tormented the mock-Cardinal in the previous play; Wolsey seemed to be shepherded by these devils to the back of the stage and off. Then the huntsmen returned and we were into the first scene proper.

Having checked the text, it seems that the intent was to show Wolsey and “that the realm of nature, the unseen and unforeseen is encroaching on Wolf Hall.” Good luck with that. Personally I took it to be a kind of ‘previously, on Wolf Hall…’, a way of reminding us of these events and indicating that Cromwell’s motivation for his actions in this play would be to revenge the abusive treatment of Wolsey by those four men. Fair enough, but I think it still needs work, especially for anyone who hasn’t read the books or seen Wolf Hall beforehand.

Moving on, the king arrived and shot a deer offstage which his huntsmen then dragged on stage so his hounds could get their reward. After cutting the deer open – and that took some time: realism or just technical problems? – the king smeared some of the blood on his companions. Then they went straight into the arrival at Wolf Hall and the introduction of the Seymour clan. The king was clearly interested in young Jane – her mousy submissiveness must have been a relief after Anne Boleyn’s bossiness – and when the king fell asleep in a chair, no one other than Jane had the courage to wake him up.

Cromwell was aware of the king’s latest fancy, but hadn’t realised that, having ditched one marriage for being ‘unlawful’, the king was happy to contemplate getting rid of his replacement wife in a similar way and expected Cromwell to sort it out (again). I wondered if Jane, the little mouse, had in some subtle way put the idea of a flawed marriage into Henry’s head during their courtship, over and above the arousing effect of her presence, but there was no indication either way in the text or performance. The subsequent fire in Anne’s apartments showed us the closeness to her person of the men who would subsequently be accused of committing adultery with her, and later the death of Katherine was indicated to us by a coffin being carried across the back of the stage.

The jousting scene had a large curtain across the back of the stage which served as the front of the tent. Initially we had a laugh at Cromwell’s son, Geoffrey, as he clanked on stage in his full suit of armour and clanked his way off again: as well as being funny, this also made us aware of the rise in Cromwell’s status. We saw the king being dressed in his armour, and when he was brought back into the tent after being injured, Cromwell did some CPR on him while the nobles faffed around being completely useless and complaining about a commoner laying hands on the king. Apart from a slight concern at the use of a chest-hitting technique in the middle of the sixteenth century, this was a very clear reminder that it was mostly thanks to commoners like Cromwell that the country was so well run – the nobles were largely a resplendent waste of space.

Henry recovered just fine, and was very angry with Anne when she wished he wouldn’t joust again. Even so, he was limping later on, so the injury had taken its toll. Perhaps it was this incident which led to Cromwell asking for a title in return for getting rid of Anne; maybe he was sick of the nobles’ attitude, maybe he felt he could get more done if he had more authority in his own right, and maybe he was just thinking of Geoffrey’s future. In any case, it was the first time that Cromwell had asked for any reward, and I’ll be interested to read his inner perspective in the book.

They took the interval at this point, and restarted with Jane’s complaints about the king’s persistent wooing. Not that she minded being wooed by the king as such, but the strain of finding things to talk about and the delicate nuances of protocol in refusing the king’s presents were getting to her. Cromwell was very helpful in his comments, as usual.

Henry had a massive strop with Chapuys, the ambassador from the Holy Roman Emperor, and this leaked over into Henry’s relationship with Cromwell, who spent a fair amount of time with Chapuys, partly for work and partly for the pleasure of his company. Nothing treasonous was in Cromwell’s mind but Henry didn’t see things that way. He made as if to strike Cromwell, who responded by throwing his hands up in front of his face, one wrist crossed over the other. It was a strange movement, and stopped Henry in his tracks; afterwards he was more conciliatory, if that word can be applied to an absolute ruler with more pride than sense. This strange movement had been explained to us earlier and was presumably clear to those who had read the book, but I wasn’t sure how well it would come across to anyone who was new to the story.

There was more laughter when Cromwell connected “fresh air” and Stoke Newington – people can be so cruel – but this time Cromwell was unable to persuade the dissolute Earl of Northumberland to recant the oath he had taken before Archbishop Warham to the effect that he had not been married to Anne Boleyn and never had sex with her. Given that the Earl had Death looming over his shoulder and breathing down his neck, Cromwell was no longer able to inspire fear in the young man, so the ‘quickie’ divorce option was definitely off the table.

Fortunately Mary Sheldon was more helpful. One of the queen’s waiting-women, she supplied Cromwell with lots of behind the scenes information as to which men had been spending the night, etc., and we saw parts of these scenes played out as she described them. Although this was good material with which to build a case against Anne, Cromwell seemed reluctant to believe the accusations, and although that may have partly been due to his legal training, I got the impression there was a personal element to this unwillingness. Again, I won’t know any more detail until I read the book.

Cromwell did go on to investigate further, and the first interrogatee was Mark Smeaton, the former employee of Cardinal Wolsey who had played the part of the cardinal earlier (in Wolf Hall) when the devils were taking him to hell; right up near the top of Cromwell’s revenge list, then. Mark demonstrated his stupidity with consummate ease, and was quick to break under the merest threat of torture. While Christophe lit a fire there was silence, and we could see Mark’s apprehension grow. He tried to sneak away but Christophe brought him back, and he was soon spilling his guts (in a metaphorical sense) and implicating everyone he could think of. As soon as he mentioned Thomas Wyatt though, Cromwell emphatically interrupted to have that name kept off the list – Wyatt was the one who had cried “shame” when the Cardinal was being mocked.

Mark’s evidence was enough to have Anne taken to the Tower while the men were being interviewed. Her trip took her along the Thames in a boat; she sat on a small stool in the middle of the stage which the boatman had placed for her, and I was reminded of an executioner placing the block. The four men were then brought on, one sitting in each corner to represent their cells. Cromwell started with Henry Norris (front right), who stood up to questioning pretty well, and continued round the noblemen until he reached Francis Weston, the youngest (back right). By this time, the others had snuck off stage, so Weston was isolated in more sense than one.

I found this extended section better, as it gave the actors time to show us their characters a little more deeply. Some of the earlier scenes had been so brief that I felt we were skimming the surface; however those who have read this book tell me that it rattles along at a much faster pace than Wolf Hall, so perhaps the play is simply reflecting that change.

When it came to signing the death warrants the mood was sombre, and there was very little dialogue. Henry paused when he read the last one; I wondered if it was Anne’s but it turned out to be Weston’s, and the king was moved by the fact that he was so young. A special executioner had been engaged for this occasion, and he gave a little demonstration for Cromwell’s benefit. This segued into the execution itself, with a cushion being left in the middle of the stage for Anne to kneel on. Three women came on with black veils over their faces, and when the central figure knelt down and raised her veil, we could see she was Jane Seymour while the women on either side were the ghosts of Katherine and Anne, both looking pretty unhappy. We had been told about this piece of staging beforehand but it was still very effective, and I liked this strong connection between the execution and the wedding; the one depended on the other.

There was a short scene after the execution of the nobles where the headless bodies, piled on a cart at the back of the stage, could not be identified; the ensuing dialogue brought out the horror and cruelty of the execution process. Naturally Cromwell, ever observant, could specify what to look for to tell which body was whose – bitten nails, etc. The king ennobled Cromwell, and the play ended with an increasing number of ghosts surrounding the man – the Cardinal, More, the recently executed noblemen. What will the third instalment bring?

We’ll have to wait a bit for that – Hilary Mantel has been enjoying the process of putting her books on the stage and writing some short stories, so it could be a while before she turns her attention fully to part three. I did enjoy tonight’s performance, although I suspect I would have enjoyed it even more if I had read the book first. Still, these adaptations are amazing in that they appeal both to those who have and to those who have not read the books – quite a feat. It will also be interesting to see whether Hilary Mantel’s experience of these dramatizations changes her writing in any way; her sense of the characters is so strong that she’s unlikely to change that, but perhaps the third book may take account of lessons learned from the stage?

Our view was blocked more often down in the stalls, but I was more aware of the characters when they were standing at the sides and so I felt more involved all the way through. The floor was still pretty boring; it just didn’t intrude as much into my consciousness as it had from the gallery. There was still plenty of humour, such as the way Cromwell dropped Stephen Gardner’s massive book straight into the waste paper basket even before Stephen had left the room. I wasn’t sure how much to believe Cromwell’s comment that he never forgot himself; after all, he apparently forgot himself in the presence of the king when he threw his hands up to defend himself. Already I’m finding that the memories of Wolf Hall are stronger than my recollection of this play, so familiarity is clearly a factor. We have arranged another stab at each, though, so perhaps I will find this easier to assimilate second time around.

We attended an actor’s Q&A at the Winter School earlier in the week, and heard a lot of background information from Lucy Briers (Queen Katherine) and Paul Jesson (Cardinal Wolsey). Both plays began at over three hours running time, and have been constantly trimmed through the rehearsal process (and the run). Furniture and props have been dropped (from the staging) which has speeded up the performances, and some scenes have been cut as well to help the pace. Other scenes were cut because they didn’t move the story along, and while the cast seem to be happy with what they’ve got at the moment, there could still be more changes to come, especially when they transfer to London. The loss of props and furniture has helped, especially in the Swan space. The audience can fill in more from their own imaginations, which is what we audiences like to do, and it is more like the experience of reading the novels.

Hilary Mantel wasn’t at all of the rehearsals, but they did have a long session with her, asking questions, and she was a mine of useful information about the time and the people. Lucy wanted to know about Lady Rochford, as less is known about her than Katherine. Likewise, Paul was more interested in his minor characters such as Kingston and John Seymour. Hilary’s notes on the characters were also praised as being very useful. George Bernard Shaw had written quite a few notes on his plays which were generally felt to be less helpful in preparing for a role, but then those were for fictional people. Hilary’s insights into the historical characters were more helpful, as well as being an unusual resource for the cast. Hilary is often in the audience, and the actors love it – she is so enthusiastic! It can be a distraction for some people, but it doesn’t make a difference to the performance. Some of the staging has been her idea, such as the ending of Bring Up The Bodies.

With Katherine, Lucy wanted to portray a woman who was born into a powerful family and knew that she was going to be Queen of England from the age of three. Given that background and her religious devotion, she felt very strongly that Henry would go to hell if he divorced her; it was virtually unthinkable to her that he would go through with it. She was a very clever woman, and would probably have made a better king than Henry.

Mary was shown as being almost retarded and appeared to be treated badly by her mother, who refused to let her sit down during Cromwell’s visit. She was a sickly child and teenager, which led to psychological problems and was a factor in her religious fanaticism. In addition, they only had one scene with her, so they had to make it memorable, and from Katherine’s point of view, her daughter had to appear strong as she was Henry’s only legitimate heir.

They knew some of the parts they were being cast for in advance, while some came along later. Paul knew about Wolsey and Kingston, with the possibility of John Seymour, but Warham was a last-minute addition. Lucy read for Katherine and pushed her way into Lady Rochford after a very enjoyable audition process. Jeremy Herrin has a great sense of humour, so after laughing all the way through her time with him, Lucy was convinced she wasn’t going to get the part, but fortunately she did.

The characters haven’t developed so much as the performances have; the actors have built up more confidence and can pick up the pace. Rewrites kept the adrenalin levels up to begin with, but now things are more settled the actors don’t have to worry so much, although it’s still very frantic backstage.

Apart from Henry addressing the audience as members of the court, there’s no interaction with the audience at all, and this was a deliberate choice. The audience are voyeurs of the action, as in the novels, so talking directly to us would disrupt that environment. Rafe in particular is on stage a lot of the time to allow for dialogue instead of soliloquys. The language is specifically modern, but designed to show us a window into a different mindset and culture from our own times, and the ghosts are part of that world.

Paul saw Wolsey as a bully, but one who saw that people were fed, etc. He worked very hard and was very intelligent – he went to Oxford aged 14. Achieving high political office was an ambition of many people at that time, despite the risks and the potentially fatal consequences of making a mistake.

Their rehearsal time in the Swan was limited, although they had four and a half weeks for each play in total. Crib sheets were in constant use to remind actors where and who they were supposed to be. The cast had been worried that the amount of business would prevent the relationships being established clearly, but they felt that with the plays becoming more familiar they’re getting more of the detail across. They used substitute costumes from an early stage, and they were heavy! Katherine’s costume weighs in at two and half stones, with the sleeves alone weighing one and a half stones!

The TV adaptation won’t be using any of the stage cast. The TV director apparently comes from a documentary background and wants a flatter delivery for his version.

Hilary is expanding the role of Christophe in the third book, entirely due to the marvellous performance by Pierro Niel Mee which works so well on stage. Understudy rehearsals are going on at the moment, all within the company. Only four actors aren’t involved as understudies, including Lucy and Paul (and Ben, obviously). If even one actor is off for any reason, there will be a huge number of knock-on effects (so they’re keeping their fingers crossed…).

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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