These theatrical adaptations of the books of the same names by award-winning novelist Hilary Mantel are, perhaps unlike their written namesakes, totally accessible. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies in novel form are undeniably big reads – these are superb adaptations that can be enjoyed without reading the stories first.
Both plays cover heavy historical material such as the Reformation, the divorce of Katherine of Aragon and the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn – yet these tales come to life with ease, passion and an almost modern edge.
Wolf Hall follows the journey of Thomas Cromwell, from the much-derided ‘lapdog’ of Cardinal Wolsey to right-hand man of King Henry VIII. The staging is simple, which allows the story to flow quickly from one thrilling moment to the next. The costumes on the other hand are full of Tudor splendor – it feels like you’re watching history unfold before your eyes.
The contrasts between Tudor and Modern London are frequent, with many jokes about ‘south of the river', Stoke Newington and Shoreditch delighting all.
Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) is a thoroughly likeable and approachable everyman who could be as much the man next door as he is the central character of this 16th century drama. This is as much the production’s strength as it is its weakness as, on occasion, elements of Cromwell’s character were lost.
Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) has some perfect outbursts of rage and comic flurries that had the audience both spellbound and bursting with laughter – thankfully his ghost still manages to pop up throughout Bring Up The Bodies.
With Wolf Hall firmly establishing Cromwell’s rise, Bring Up The Bodies sees the demise of Anne Boleyn, picking up right where Wolf Hall left off. This is a darker, more poignant play with even more deception and death than its predecessor, although we think you’d probably be lost if you’d not seen Wolf Hall.
King Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) is both the most powerful man in the world and the most dependent, on Cromwell. The more the king relies on his advisor, the more interconnected and ultimately tangled the two become. Parker’s portrayal of Henry is utterly convincing – charming, deluded, cruel, loving and sociopathic, but always fresh and with sparkle.
The contrasts of Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) and Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead) are unmistakable – very different characters with qualities that we loved and hated in equal measure. The same can be said for the handsome and idiotic Harry Percy (Nicholas Shaw), for all the characters of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. However legendary some of these figures may be, they’re all brought to life as thoroughly believable human characters – they all sparkle just as much as their Tudor finery, and it’s this that makes these productions unforgettable for all the right reasons.
Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies run as separate shows, and you're encouraged (by us, at least) to see the former before the latter. They run at Aldwych Theatre until 6 September 2014.
By Danny Hilton
See also: the locations from Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.