THE prospect of watching just over six hours of theatre practically back to back could be seemed as a daunting one – especially when it is an adaptation of two Booker prize-winning novels, which span between them more than 1,000 pages.
How could anyone have to cut so much from the books, yet keep the essence of the originals?
Mike Poulton manages to do just this in his stage adaptions of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest offerings on the Swan Theatre stage – a double bill of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (the first two novels of a trilogy, the third, The Mirror and the Light is already underway).
And if anything, Poulton makes these works more accessible – the books have been described by some as a ‘hard’ read - managing to balance the background history and narration with cleverly constructed asides, making the plots easy to follow and still bringing the characters to life as Mantel does in her originals.
The two productions work as stand alone performances, but seeing them both in one day (the RSC does seem to have a knack of grouping productions such as these and Michael Boyd’s Histories in such a way that it is truly an experience rather than just going to the theatre) proved to be a staging triumph.
Indeed, as Wolf Hall came to a close, the audience was left begging for more.
The productions not only share a set (designed by Christopher Oram), simple and dominated by a striking cross which wanes from time to time as a reflection of the conflict of religion at the time, but director Jeremy Herrin, also shares his cast across the two productions, maintaining continuity and really giving the audience the chance to see how each character grows, changes and becomes manipulated.
Herrin’s work makes for a mesmerising, entertaining and emotionally charged production, with clever lighting (by Paule Constable) and dramatic music (Stephen Warbeck). But it is really the acting that clinches these plays as possibly best in the season so far.
Ben Miles steals the hearts of the audience as Thomas Cromwell, mastering the multi-facets of this character with relentless energy and ease. Nathaniel Parker is an equally strong King Henry VIII. In fact the acting is superb all round, with Lucy Briers’s Katherine of Aragon, Lydia Leonard’s feisty Anne Boleyn, Paul Jesson’s Cardinal Wolsey, John Ramm’s Thomas More and Olivia Darnley’s Mary Boleyn (to mention just a handful).
These two productions really stand up as costume drama at its best and it wouldn’t be surprising if we see a West End transfer in the future. They run in the Swan Theatre in Stratford until 29th March.
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