All the World’s a Stage…

Hilary Mantel (adaptation: Mike Poulton): Wolf Hall / Bring Up the Bodies, Royal Shakespeare Company, Aldwych Theatre, London (Director. James Herrin)

By Sascha Krieger

„All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players“: if Shakespeare’s words (from As You Like It) are true Hilary Mantel‘ snovels Wolf Hall and  Bring Up the Bodies were made for the stage. For the first two parts of a yet to be completed trilogy are nothing less than a panoramic view of the world, of humankind’s wheelings and dealings, their ambition and hubris, their greatest success and ultimate failure. A dance of death and life in which both are born and lead into each other, and where triumph and annihilation are twins. Seen through the eyes of much maligned Thomas Cromwell, a key adviser to Henry VIII, Mantel’s vision unfolds much more of a re-imagination of the Tudor age – she takes a good and hard look at what makes us human, in the best and the worst of ways. Wolf Hall and  Bring Up the Bodies are highly philosophical meditations on the meaning of life and its inherent randomness and, at the same time, fascinating portrayals of life in all its fullness.

Image: Sascha Krieger

Image: Sascha Krieger

Bringing this to the stage is an impossible task. Much has to be lost, all that can be achieved is to try and remain true to the books‘ spirit. To make a long story short: Mike Poulter’s stage adaptation and James Herrin’s direction are a triumphant success. Wolf Hall begins with a dance: to Tudor-age music, all characters engage in formal turns and steps, they move in and out of the limelight, appear at the front of the stage and disappear at the back. In the ensuing nearly six hours (both plays combined), they will repeat this movements many times and in many ways. Scenes and groupings appear out of nothing and with great ease dissolve into the next tableau which is as little permanent as the previous one. In a world in which power is everything and being powerless means death, nothing remains. Except Cromwell, portrayed with stoical yet vulnerable stubbornness by Ben Miles. He is always around – where in the books, he is the eyes through which we see, his presence creates any scene in the first place, he is the focus point here as in the novels. Detached observer and interested participant, Cromwell encompasses the world which he controls – but in which he is at the same time just a pawn. The fleeting nature of all that we hold permanent and indestructable can be grased in this character and this approach to telling the story.

The stage is bare, a massive concrete cage forming a cross at the rear. Religion is always at the centre of debate, but it is little more than a passive, cold instrument of power, a dead force only useful to kill and conquer. That the powerful are prisoners of their own greed and fear is hinted at in the cage-like steel cubes hovering over the the stage. Underneath Nathaniel Parker’s Henry is a charming bully haunted by his demons, Paul Jesson’s Wolsey is an affable schemer with an equal abundance of affection ond narcissism, Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn a power hungry careerist and a lost soul at the same time. Despite the massive cuts from the books, the characters are fascinatingly rounded and full of life, hunters and hunted all. At some point Cromwell says that it isn’t the dead haunting the living but the other way round. And indeed: as the death count rises the worlds of the living of the dead move more and more into one, who is at whose jugular can hardly be determined.

Herrin’s direction moves effortlessly from scene to scene, in an everlasting dance that may well be one of ghosts. It almost seems as if these characters know that to thos watching them they are long gone – and still present. For who can say that Henry’s days are past? Aren’t we reliving or at least observing the same cycle of power and oppression, ambition and suffering, violence and loss every day in this modern world of ours? It is Mantel’s great achievement to bring this age which hitherto we have only seen as if through a thick pane straight into our presence, our lives as it were. And it is the miracle of this stage adaptation that it achieves exactly the same. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is gripping theatre: funny, haunting, sad, intense, true. But it is even more: it holds up a mirror in which we see ourselves, our own age in thes rich and colourful costumes, the opulent robes an hats under which 21st century faces are staring back at us. As the man whose name the theatre company at work here proudly uses said: „All the world’s a stage“. And we’re right in the middle of it.

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