Bring Up The Bodies
by Hilary Mantel
Dramatised by Mike Poulton
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Aldwych, London
Saturday 5th July 2014, 7.30 pm
Two plays in one day this weekend (and next )… at London hotel prices we need to maximize the theatre versus the rest of the visit. Otherwise it’s too much bum on velour seat, and usually, unfair on the second play of the day, which this was. Our opinions of Wolf Hall a few weeks back were less warm than those of most critics, and as we said then, the transfer to the Aldwych necessarily is compromised by a proscenium arch theatre and the ensuing brakes on fluidity. I suspect most reviews were based on the RSC Stratford stage, not London. We’ve been listening to the unabridged Bring Up The Bodies in the car, and my admiration for Hilary Mantel’s writing, drama and dialogue grows apace. I like the story at full length. I wrote the first draft of this review without re-reading my Wolf Hall review. (LINKED) This one seems like a repeat now, but after all the two plays are played in repertory and they are just part one and part two of the same story. In Wolf Hall, I commented on how well Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn slaps face on stage. Repeated in part two. Comments on the physical space are almost exactly the same, because we were sitting in the same row of seats for both.
The Aldwych Theatre felt even worse this time. I guess after Julius Caesar in the afternoon, we were already tired. At the back of the Dress Circle we could barely see and hardly hear. The seats are badly aligned, so you watch the head in front, not the space between heads, and you’re high up and far away. See the iPhone photo from my seated 6 foot 2 inch height taken BEFORE the play started … I wouldn’t take photos during a play. The light grey bits are the stage.
The view from Row L of the dress circle
This is the Dress Circle, and there’s a Grand Circle above that which must be even worse. After The Old Vic in the Round and The Globe for the two previous plays on this trip, this was just too remote, too cold, too distant to get involved. Look at all those five star reviews. As with Wolf Hall we’re not with them.
The production relies on short scenes and tableaux for style, and the way the adaptation has been precised to focus on amusing lines means it’s akin to Hilary Mantel’s Greatest Quips. Though great quips they often are. The three who get the most out of them are Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Leah Brotherhead has too few lines as Jane, but manages to get something memorable out of all of them. The chief pleasure of the production is Ben Miles’s Thomas Cromwell, Jack the Ladding his way through interrogating people. However, I wasn’t convinced by his internal monologues being made flesh by having Cardinal Wolseley and Thomas More turn up as ghosts. I suppose they had them in the cast anyway.
Ben Miles encapsulates what the book does in making Thomas Cromwell a character we identify with, even if history has given him a bad name. Perhaps it’s his rise from the working class of Putney to outdo all the aristocrats. The British love class politics, even set in an era so different in strata. While we were waiting for the play to start, a couple were walking up the stairs saying “But they are SO insufferably middle-class …” I don’t know whether they were looking from a Hampstead and Islington left-wing point of view, or whether from an upper middle-class perspective looking down. But it proved our obsession is still there and that’s why we enjoy this Thomas Cromwell.
The play felt very long, much longer than The Crucible the night before, which had been in a more involving space, even though The Crucible was a near hour longer. We were still on the same themes of 16th / 17th century interrogation and accusation for much of Bring Up The Bodies too, making it all too easy and inviting to compare. Hilary Mantel is a great novelist. Arthur Miller is a great playwright. This adaptation is not in Miller’s league. There are too many very short scenes, or rather interchanges, so, unlike the book, just as you start to get involved, you switch. For example, in the book, Henry’s fall from a horse at a joust and getting knocked out is gripping; dripping with tension even though knowledge of history tells you he’s not dead. Here, it’s still an important and a well-done scene, but it’s over with so fast. As with Wolf Hall, I would have cut more plot and let what was left have more space to get across.
The languid interrogation of Mark the lute player is a centerpiece (and is given more room too), with Cromwell so calm, so seemingly uninvolved but underneath so coldly threatening and manipulative. Taking the character of Thomas Cromwell versus the snarling, shouting Governor Danforth in The Crucible, Cromwell’s insidious technique is equally terrifying. Then we have to see much the same technique displayed with the four others accused of adultery, but much faster, and my mind began to wander. We don’t see enough of the women. I wanted to see more Anne, more Jane, more Catherine, more Lady Rochford, Mary Shelton, Lady Worcester. The various lovers of Anne are easily confused and much of a muchness. Faces blur at the distance and you struggle to find an identifying characteristic. The women, apart from the shorter Jane, are totally indistinguishable until they start speaking. Fortunately Anne often starts “Cremwell … ” in her assumed French accent, otherwise the faces blur. Long dresses are long dresses and hair is covered by caps. Norfolk and Suffolk stand out as having strong identifying characteristics, as does Cromwell’s French servant, Christophe by the accent. Henry is recognizable by flashes of gold on the clothes and the characteristic legs apart stance. Couldn’t see his face. Otherwise, sorry, the blokes blur together too. Not in acting, but because they don’t have enough script to make something of themselves. The parts are too short.
The acting is all excellent, and that goes without saying. No one is under-projecting either, they’re just so far away in the Aldwych it’s like watching a rock concert in a stadium without the video screens. I’d be interested in seeing a broadcast to cinemas just to find out what we were missing. Like facial reactions. Small gestures. Body language. Faces. I could have walked past any of the cast members ten minutes after the play ended without recognizing them.
We both felt it’s a play we could have missed seeing without any regrets. Not worth the money or the effort at this theatre in these seats. Three stars is generous. I shake my head in wonder at all those fives, but I bet they were sitting in nice seats.
What the papers say …
PERFORMANCE NOTE Nicholas Shaw (Harry Percy / William Brereton) was unable to perform and understudied by Benedict Hastings. We didn’t notice the joins.
PROGRAMME A repeat of my Wolf Hall comment. Why are programmes £4 at Stratford, £6 in London?