by Hilary Mantel
Dramatized for the stage by Mike Poulton
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Aldwych Theatre, London
Friday 2nd May 2014
The Aldwych Theatre
We should have seen Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies in Stratford-upon-Avon at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Three friends told us to go to the highly-acclaimed productions, but we hadn’t read the award winning books. Unlike most of the population, I was never gripped by ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ on TV, nor did I watch ‘The Tudors.’ Then my sister gave us the audio CD of Wolf Hall, read by Dan Stevens, one of the best audio readings I’ve heard. It was fabulous writing, and the story gripped so much that we would arrive somewhere and have to sit in the car park to get to the end of the next bit. The principled, upright, pious torturer, Sir Thomas More was read exactly as if it was my old headmaster’s voice too. That really fitted. And I’d never known that More was such a bastard, never heard of Mary Boleyn, nor that she was an assertive lady. This comes of not watching all those TV series. Jane Seymour’s sweet Wiltshire burr was also rendered beautifully by Dan Stevens. The plot fascinated. Too late for Stratford, so it had to be the London transfer. We booked Wolf Hall early, and Bring Up The Bodies later in the run, to give us time to get through the second audio book. Wolf Hall is abridged 6 CDs or under eight hours … about a 50% cut at a guess, as we then bought the unabridged 12 CD version of Bring Up The Bodies.
The trouble with a London transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon, is that you are taking the thrust stage production with the dynamism and speed of its four entrances and squashing it back onto a proscenium stage. Stratford would have been Wolf Hall 3D, as conceived. London is Wolf Hall 2D. Same cast, same production, same script, but squashed back. I disagree that the RSC needs a London base (see London-centric Theatre under RANTS) but if they are going to transfer regularly, they need somewhere new with a thrust stage. Mind you, if they ever do it, they don’t need to replicate the wooden barriers and uncomfortable seats, just the shape. The draughty halls of The Barbican are not the right place, nor are conventional West End theatres. The 1200 seat Aldwych is a big one too, more used to musicals, which means it has a large stage at least (and they had a forward stage right entrance that I think was a sign of extension). It’s also an example of the grasping nature of some West End theatres. Only eleven ladies loos for 1200 audience? £6 for an RSC programme which was £4 in Stratford? £2.50 for “Aldwych water”, while the National charges £1.50. Dictatorial ushers. People taking beer and wine in, so you have to smell it all the way through, a sign of a theatre maximizing profit. Interestingly, The Aldwych programme tells us it was the RSC London base from 1960 until they moved to The Barbican in 1980. Size matters, and if they want a London run, I guess profit is the motive. Anyway, let’s hope they don’t use it again.
The play boasts a long list of five star reviews. It suffers from the fault of any big historical story. Even with massive cutting it has too much script for the time. Fast fluid switches from scene to scene are an RSC given, but even so, it sounds at times like a Greatest Hits run through of lines from the book. Sometimes you need to show less of the story, but in more depth. I can’t see how you could have cut more though to allow that. We thought there were several places where prior knowledge of the story was essential to follow the plot, and also that even with costumes it was harder to distinguish some characters than it had been with Dan Stevens reading. But we were in the second to back row of the dress circle and the stage looked and felt a mile away, too far away to get any sense of facial reaction from the actors. If you’re going to use somewhere this big and with much of the audience gazing from the extreme distance, then you need to colour code costumes clearly – the Globe did this strongly with their touring Henry VI which was going to battlefields, so you need to identify by costume, such as “red – Wolsey.” The Duke of Norfolk was in dusty red, Wolseley in Cardinal’s scarlet, but there was a lot of dusty black and dark colours … except for Henry VIII. We had seen some of the cast at the RSC before, but we were too far away to recognize faces!
There were good stage-focussed bits, though they were nearly all in Act Two, like the play enacted about Cardinal Wolsely, and dipping Lord Percy’s head in water. The cast were all excellent. Ben Miles as Cromwell, Nathanial Parker as King Henry, Paul Jesson as Cardinal Wolsely, Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, Lucy Briers as Catharine of Aragon. Lean Brotherhood was a stand out Jane Seymour and Princess Mary, and I especially admired Anne Boleyn’s slap around Jane’s face. It looked and sounded real. The adaptation found a lot of humour in lines. Some may have been added, I don’t know, but they weren’t in the audio book, already a 50% cut of the text. Remember, two-thirds of that 50% had to be cut to get to stage running time. A Gargantuan task!
One thing I disliked, was that in the original story, we see no scenes where Thomas Cromwell is not present. That sets our viewpoint and sympathy clearly. I got less sense of Cromwell than I had in the book. There were points in this where Cromwell was not present during a scene. A mistake, even if he’s not involved he should be listening. The “too much story” rankled for me, in that we found it breathless, but also there was no time to get deeply involved in a scene before it had flowed into the next one. When we heard the audio versions, some scenes were so good and so dramatic that the text already sounded like a stage play … the persuasion of Percy to give up his claims, the interviews with Katherine and Anne. The dialogue with Lady Rochford. They’re all much shorter. Mary Boleyn came out so powerfully in the book, but had less space here. Turning up in Cromwell’s room was skipped totally.
Highly professional, well staged, directed and acted, but five stars is a “magic production.” This may have been at the RSC, but squashed onto the Aldwych proscenium frame, with our view from seats in the back of the dress circle (at £45 each, they were not “cheap seats” just bad seats), a long long way from the action, there was no magic in the experience for either of us. You can’t do Shakespeare without seeing actors’ faces. The RSC and Globe are big, but even the bad seats are much closer than in this awful theatre. A highly competent three star for us.
Se also: BRING UP THE BODIES review, 5th July 2014, linked