“Who will get me my divorce?” Thundered out by a fierce Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker), that’s the problem underpinning Hilary Mantel’s huge novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” now translated into a superbly tense duet of stage productions by Jeremy Herrin. It’s solved by the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, via a magnetic and quietly extraordinary performance by Ben Miles, who, across six hours of masterly manipulation, dominates the 21-strong cast and never leaves the stage. The fiercely intelligent result is like “The Tudors” rewritten by Aaron Sorkin with added ruthlessness.
In a stroke of inspiration, Playful Prods. not only commissioned an adaptation of Mantel’s historically authentic re-examinations of 16th-century life-and-death intrigue and power play, but took it to the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose ability to produce plays of the period is its raison d’etre.
Tudor history is traditionally seen as the machinations of kings and queens, with Henry VIII famously working through six of the latter in his search for a woman to bear him a son so as to ensure the succession. Mantel’s inspired approach, echoed by adaptor Mike Poulton, was to take the decade covering the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and present everything from an entirely unexpected perspective: that of Cromwell, who rose inexorably from being the son of a blacksmith to becoming the second most powerful man in the kingdom.
The villain, famously, of Robert Bolt’s play and film “A Man for All Seasons,” Cromwell here emerges entirely differently. Two things made him outstanding: First, in a land resolutely ruled by title and privilege, he was a commoner loathed by almost everyone at court but the king. Second, he had the ability to forecast and make every possible advantageous political move not only for the king, but for himself.
Miles proves ideal in both respects. Although the text describes him as a bruiser, Miles is lean, powerful and classless. A lesser production would have put an obvious hulk in the role, but this subtler casting more effectively reflects the snobbery of those who despise him. Miles also has a low center of gravity that gives him an almost preternatural air of calm, his complete lack of physical or vocal strain allowing him to switch from thoughtful inquiry to gleaming malevolent threat whenever necessary. Even as he’s taunted by the powerful men and women who resent him, his effortless dispatching of his and Henry’s enemies is achieved with such devastating ease that it’s as engrossing as it is shocking.
In the novels — which each individually won the Booker Prize — the sights, sounds, textures and tones of the period were expertly conjured by Mantel’s prose. The temptation must have been to realize all this via production design, but Christopher Oram smartly goes to the opposite extreme, detailing all that solely through his lavish period costumes. His strikingly stark, elemental design keeps furniture and literal settings to an absolute minimum — concrete walls, strips of real fire in the flooring, rain and snow from above. Suggestively lit by Paule Constable, this forces audiences to do the imaginative work.
Equally importantly, it plays perfectly into the hands of helmer Herrin, who never lets the pace drop. With no elaborate locations to set up, scenes can switch instantly, feeding into one another so that the energy never flags. His beautifully balanced ensemble company, in turn, are never allowed to drop the ball, maintaining tension throughout.
Poulton’s dialogue is, by necessity, often exposition-heavy since there are literally dozens of characters to be introduced and crucial real-life events to be charted. Instead of being dully explanatory, the dialogue remains almost always active. There are a few flaccid passages that could do with trimming but, for the most part, Herrin and Poulton ensure the stakes remain high and audiences engaged by the interstices of plots and counterplots too embroiled to enumerate here.
Cromwell’s flawed mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, is given an amusingly gruff, hugely sympathetic performance by Paul Jesson, and Lucy Briers scores an excellent double as both Henry’s slighted but resolute and resilient first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and the embittered Lady Rochford, Cromwell’s eyes and ears in Anne’s chambers. As Anne, Lydia Leonard spends most of the play as a scheming minx yet latterly gains complex sympathy for having fallen into something of her own trap.
Ironically in such a wordy play, the most powerful sequence is the climactic, extended passage of fraught, taut silence. Cromwell patiently hands over papers for Henry to sign authorizing a sequence of death sentences, and the entire auditorium is held in thrall by the unspoken deliberations of both men. It’s a tribute to the depth of the ideas conveyed directly by the actors into the minds of the audience.
The entire Stratford-upon-Avon run, sold out prior to opening, has met with rave local reviews. Steeped as the production is in English history, however, its future life is not a simple given. A West End transfer is virtually guaranteed, but producers may need to sound out reactions from U.S. visitors before locking down a transatlantic journey.