Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies Plays Review by Marcia Wadham

Wolf Hall RSCThank you so much to Marcia Wadham for writing this wonderful review of the RSC’s adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

Hilary Mantel’s books are wonderfully brought to life in these stage plays from the RSC. It was hard to imagine how each book, with around 800 pages of well-crafted prose, could be condensed into three hours, but the results are mesmerising. The set is simple, the scene changes are slick, the choreography is breath-taking and the comic timing is perfect. As a piece of theatre, it is stunning.

My favourite aspect of Hilary Mantel’s books is her characterisation of Thomas Cromwell; hers is not a history of goodies and baddies, but of a complex, intelligent, flawed individual. Ben Miles’ portrayal brings this out perfectly. Although you are led to have a certain sympathy for him, you definitely cannot like him very much. Ordinarily, I have an intense dislike of individual actors making solo curtain calls, but in this case it seemed wholly appropriate, as Miles never left the stage and led the action flawlessly in every scene.

Even more than in the books, you have the sense throughout the plays that you are seeing history through the eyes of one of its protagonists. All of the characters are introduced according to the roles they play in the life of Thomas Cromwell – people who will one day be out to use his considerable abilities and influence with the King to get what they want, and the next will readily use their own power to attempt to bring him down. His own loyalties, of course, lie always in the place where they will give him the greatest advantage.

I suspect that this would be difficult to follow for those who have limited knowledge of English history. Listening in to conversations in the intervals, I heard a number of people trying to explain some of the veiled references to the impact of events on both the monarchy and the church in England, especially of the pointed references to the birth of the ‘useless’ Princess Elizabeth.

Any avid Tudor history fan should watch with caution, though. These are plays based upon works of historical fiction, and are not aiming to be documentaries. The general sense of the time in which these events took place is conveyed beautifully – the intrigue, the pace of change, the rapid shifts in power, the danger of being out of favour and the King’s need for a son. But the detail is entirely from the imagination.

Henry’s wives are presented almost as caricatures of themselves; Katherine is fiercely loyal and angry, Anne is feisty and tempestuous, Jane is demure and naïve. To the history purist, this will be a huge frustration, but it adds to the realisation that you are watching through an imagining of Cromwell’s viewpoint, of the roles they play as pawns standing in his way to power. And it makes for a great theatre and great entertainment, which manages to keep the audience captivated for almost six hours.

You can find out more about the RSC’s plays of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and buy tickets, at http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/london/

Photo: Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, by Keith Pattison, courtesy of RSC.

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16 thoughts on “Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies Plays Review by Marcia Wadham”
  1. I’m so pleased ‘George Boleyn, Tudor Poet Courtier and Diplomat’ came out in time as, hopefully, an antidote to Mantel’s fiction. Fingers crossed the real George Boleyn will be remembered rather than the George of Mantel’s fiction.

      1. I’ve already heard from someone else who’s seen these plays that he’s a prancing fop and laughing stock who is introduced for comic relief. It makes me sick to the stomach.

  2. I saw the plays both in one day in Stratford back in February. George is portrayed as a vain fop. One of the few characterizations that is a complete disappointment. Overall the adaptations are an incredible feat. Particularly the central perfornance by Ben Miles now my absolute favorite actor to perform Cromwell. Rylance has his wotk cut out to top this. I reviewed both on my theatrical review blog back in February

  3. For every 1 person who reads our book 100,000 people will read Mantel’s books and/or watch her plays and/or watch the TV series. What the hell was the point?

    1. Now you’re being defeatist, hun. The Other Boleyn Girl, for all its inaccuracies, has driven people to find out more about Anne and Mary and Tudor history, and I’m sure Mantel’s work will do the same. There’s now a modern biography out about George so there was a big point in doing it. We’ve got George’s story out there.

      1. Defeatism or realism? I can’t help but believe that Mantel has destroyed everything we’ve worked for to get the truth about George out there. Few people will really care, all they will see is Mantel’s work and their perceptions of George Boleyn will be based on that. I just think that’s a sad fact.

        1. You can’t change the world and there will, of course, be people who choose to believe fictional depictions but that’s their choice. People who are interested in finding out about the real history of the story now have a wealth of information to help them, incuding a biography of George Boleyn.

        2. If I may, I’d like to support Claire’s idea. I started watching The Tudors a few years ago (which, as we know, at least initially towed the party line on the characters of Anne and George). That show led me to look for more information, which led me to this site, which led me to volumes one and two of The Anne Boleyn Collection as well as other books, and most recently, to your biography of George. As a writing teacher, I am also able to speak now with students about the rhetorical motives and anti-historical issues in books like Wolf Hall and The Other Boleyn Girl. (Susan Bordo’s The Creation of Anne Boleyn is also particularly helpful in this regard.)

          Long story short: Don’t give up hope, Clare! There are many of us out here who will want to learn better than what we’re told by fiction.

    2. Aaaah Clare, don’t be disheartened , I have nearly finished yours and Claire’s book and I love the matter of fact truthfulness of it, and appreciate the hard work you both put into it too. It was real and to the point.

      I understand your frustration, you may not sell as many as Mantel’s has, but you really must take pride in the fact that you have written a very well researched book on George, no one can take that from you, or dispute where you have gathered your facts from, no matter what the sale figures say.

      It seems there are more people who prefer to read fiction so it will always be a constant battle to compete with the story writers.
      Those that are curious about George and want to read more will find your little ‘treasure’ and those of us who have read it will pass on the word…so chin up gal…. 🙂

  4. As an American – one who is throughly immersed in Tudor history and has been for some time – and as an author, I am reluctant to truly state my opinion of the revered Ms Mantel’s work lest I sound like an ugly Yank or expressing sour grapes. She is admired by many, after all she was just awarded a Damehood! There are just as many, however, whom I believe share my view and that view is as follows: Mantel’s use of language is masterful. But the actual flow of her writing in these works? Overwrought is how I describe it. Not a pleasure to read. Furthermore, I resent the fact that her interpretation of Anne is so pedantic. I further dislike the fact that even though her novels were ‘about Thomas Cromwell’, who sold these books for her?? Anne did! Whose picture is on the cover – to sell books? Anne’s is! And who, really, is the central figure – the one who makes the story compelling? Well of course – it is Anne Boleyn.

    The use of her image to market Ms Mantel’s work, I think, should surely warrant enough research ,and sufficient thought, in order to present a more intuitive and novel depiction of Anne, her true star.

  5. Did Thomas Cromwell see George Boleyn as a ‘vain fop’ because it is Dame Hilary’s idea of Cromwell’s idea of George which is being portrayed, not George himself. Certainly it isn’t the Recovered George of your ‘GB, Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat’ and it’s probably good to hold on to the fact that only now do we have some solid research work out there which is easy to find. Keep the faith!

  6. This negative picture of George in popular culture seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon. I don’t remember him being painted anywhere near as negatively in Tudor film and TV adaptations of the 1960s and 70s. It seems to all trickle down from Warnicke’s theories that were so influential to recent popular portrayals of George in The Other Boleyn Girl and The Tudors.

    I actually very much enjoyed Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies. Although, I do find Mantel’s depiction of Anne to be a little lazy. I know she says that she wrote Anne as she thought Cromwell would have seen her. But, I thought she fell back on old stereotypes about Anne when she didn’t need to. Having said that I am going to try and see RSC’s production before the run ends and will be anticipating the BBC adaptation next year.

    If anyone is interested you can see pics of Claire Foy in costume as Anne Boleyn for BBC’s Wolf Hall here: http://claire-foy.org/gallery/displayimage.php?album=369&pid=17162#top_display_media

    There’s also plenty of pics of Damien Lewis as Henry and Mark Rylance as Cromwell around.

  7. It’s kind of interesting that the play has been said to make a “fop” out of George Boleyn! That’s too bad, really. Is it possible that was more of a natural difficulty of stage production of the material? I didn’t read much more into Hilary Mantel’s descriptions of George than that he dressed to make a big impression about his importance, and how! I saw him, in the book, more as believing in his own publicity than anything else. I think Mantel did him some justice and gave him a touching nobility before it was over for him.

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