Bring up the Bodies Review

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Swan Theatre, Stratford

Monday 24 February 2014

Why on earth were two stage adaptations of two prize-winning fictional biographies so amazingly popular that we had to buy tickets over six months in advance? I gather that tickets were even selling at well over purchase price on e-bay. Admittedly, the novels were adapted by Mike Poulton, who had several very successful versions to his credit – most notably for us The Canterbury Tales – and it could have been interesting to compare this presentation of Henry VIII with those on TV, and even by Shakespeare. We were limiting ourselves to the second in the series, retailing the downfall of Anne Boleyn, but it could have been appallingly adapted, it could have been a travesty of the Mantel original, it could have been abysmally acted.

It wasn’t. The ecstatic reviews were justified. I recollected passages of dialogue and certain incidents from the book brought to vivid life on stage. I enjoyed the slick movement from scene to scene, effected with little in the way of props in a very Shakespearean manner, so that three hours passed without longeurs. The Swan is splendidly equipped for this sort of production. I thought the language excellently convincing, a touch of Tudor without being obscure, and verging at times on the poetic. It was even much funnier than expected, given that it is about the intrigue and dishonesty needed to bring a queen to trial. Above all, it was, through uniformly exceptional acting, a delight to see characters brought to complex and credible life. Special mention has to go to Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, not only because the part is enormous, but also because he made this Machiavellian fixer somehow forgiveable and even likeable. The portrait of Henry was similarly much deeper and more multi-faceted than the lustful fat man of cartoons, while the three women in his life (thus far) Queens Catherine and Anne, and queen-to-be Jane, were wonderfully differentiated and believable.

We went on talking about it on the way home in the mini-bus; I don’t think anybody had found the show wanting. How soon before Mantel finishes the trilogy and the RSC depicts Cromwell’s demise?

Malcolm Wright

16 March 2014