The all-powerful family firm has assets aplenty, but its troubled future is being massively fought over with everyone plotting over the next generation. No, not the upcoming third season of “Succession” — but that title could serve as an accurate alternative to “The Mirror and the Light,” the stage version of the third and final part of Hilary Mantel’s bestselling Tudor novel sequence. Given the success on both sides of the Atlantic of the twinned presentations of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up The Bodies,” let alone the BAFTA-winning BBC mini-series that followed, there’s clearly huge anticipation for this final part. Have those expectations been met? Almost.
Even before “Six” rocked up, almost all of those with knowledge of the period knew it via the fates of Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves aka wives three and four of Henry VIII. But although Mantel’s novels are shaped around Henry’s marriages i.e. his overwhelming need for a son and heir, they’re really about Henry’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell — think White House chief of staff but with more power — played authoritatively, as before, by Ben Miles.
This time, however, Miles is on double duty as previous adapter Mike Poulton has been replaced by Mantel herself, a playwriting novice who brought Miles on board to write it with her. The first thing to note is that they’re wisely determined to be faithful to the book’s spirit rather than its letter. That much is clear from the outset with the book’s electrifyingly vivid and bloody opening (the immediate aftermath of the beheading of Anne Boleyn) entirely replaced by a new framing device of Cromwell four years later facing life-and-death interrogation in the Tower of London.
Cutting was inevitable in this 900-page doorstep of a novel, but it’s to Mantel and Miles’ credit that they have edited everything down to focus on forward momentum, immediately setting up high dramatic stakes. Everything then cuts back in order to lead audiences through the four years of intrigue and chicanery that got into him into this perilous position.
The production’s difficulty, however, is the sheer political complexity of Cromwell’s work as he tries to engineer a way through Henry’s longstanding succession crisis. It’s to the writers’ immense credit that, aside from the careful repeating of character names, there’s barely a line reeking of expected exposition.
At its weakest, in terms of form, it’s like “Love, Actually”: with so many characters, few are granted enough time to develop or to form a relationship with the audience. Because every movement within Cromwell’s plans for Henry upsets one side or the other, he, the king and the nation are constantly fighting with one another via multiple key players of both church and state. And even though Christopher Oram’s magnificent period costumes (set against a neutral, abstracted set) illuminate status as much as they do character, it’s remains hard to keep track for most of the first act. Every freighted moment of director Jeremy Herrin’s production is crowded with incident within political argument that is so vital that at one point the divided court and country face civil war.
Things warm up considerably, however, after the intermission, which even manages something approaching a second-act opening number with courtiers dancing in anticipation of the arrival of Anna, aka Anne of Cleves. Nicely strict Rosanna Adams embodies both the unfortunate queen and Cromwell’s increasingly desperate route, he hopes, out of the royal mess. The necessary first act exposition over, the focus moves from wide shot into spotlit personal struggles.
There’s a standout turn from Nicholas Boulton as the jolly, nice-but-dim Duke of Suffolk, and if Nicholas Woodeson had a mustache he’d be twirling it as a growling, furious and deliciously smug Duke of Norfolk. But the production’s power, appropriately, lies elsewhere.
Henry’s escalating difficulties move him closer to the heart of this play than in the two earlier ones, and a grumpily regal, finely irascible Nathaniel Parker returns, building upon his formerly bluff manner with convincing rage and, ultimately, cunning.
As the bruising, commoner son of a blacksmith who, against all odds, rose to the highest office in the land (to the outrage and disgust of everyone but the king), Miles, cast cleverly against type, continues his engrossing underplaying of Cromwell’s savagery while never letting the audience forget its power. But as Cromwell’s power wanes, the more his thoughts, rather than his actions, became vital — and the structure and script don’t have space for us to connect to the internal struggle that is expressed with such astonishing depth on Mantel’s pages.
If that creates a degree of disappointment, that has to be weighed against the production’s extraordinary achievement in making history live. Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s re-imagining and restoration of the previously neglected Alexander Hamilton, Herrin’s ideally marshaled stage productions of Mantel’s re-invention of Cromwell have helped create a complete dramatic — in every sense — reappraisal of history.