Wolf Hall, RSC – A worthy staging of Mantel’s much acclaimed novel


It is inevitable that an adaptation to the stage of a 672 page novel will leave out many details and nuances and such is the case in Wolf Hall, the first instalment of Hilary Mantel‘s prize-winning books which tries to rehabilitate Thomas Cromwell after nearly 500 years as one of England’s favourite villain.  Mike Poulton was brought in to adapt the novel and has done a very good job, creating two three-hour plays for the RSC.

Wolf Hall - Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Daniel Fraser as his son
Wolf Hall – Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Daniel Fraser as his son

We witness Thomas Cromwell’s ascension while that of his master, Cardinal Wolsey, moves in the opposite direction.  We observe his sharp intellect but also his very self-serving flattery to his new master King Henry VIII.  This might be somewhat of a rehabilitation of Cromwell but he certainly doesn’t come out smelling of roses.  He cleverly finds a way to provide the king with a way out of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, something that Thomas More refused to facilitate and which cost him his head. But by the end of Wolf Hall, the king has married Anne Boleyn, after a wait of seven years, she has born him a daughter and miscarried a son, but he is now bored and already setting his eyes on the next prey.  As opposed to the books, we don’t see the action through Cromwell’s mind and that is perhaps the biggest loss.

If Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell is in any way a true reflection of the man, then Ben Miles is most definitely too attractive for the part, though one has to make allowances for 21-century aesthetics I suppose.  Miles does an excellent job of showing the different sides of Cromwell from his scheming mind at court to his fierce loyalty for Wolsey, even when the latter has fallen out of favour.  Here is a man who is fully cognizant of the precarious situation in which he lives, dependent as he is on the king’s good humour for his livelihood and life.  And that can be dangerous when the master in questions is so variable as stated early on by Wolsey’s that Henry “always believes what he says . . . at the time he’s saying it”.  Nathaniel Parker is a very good Henry VIII, at once powerful yet unsure and in need of reassurance. Paul Jesson is a warm and constant Wolsey.  Lucy Briers is self-righteous and incredulous as Catherine while Lydia Leonard, as Anne Boleyn, is convincing as the manipulative temptress.  The set by Christopher Oram is minimalist but effective and his usage of various fires and candles does conjure up rooms and moods very effectively.  He also created the costumes, which are exquisite, down to the cardinal’s red slippers.  The lighting by Paule Constable is particularly noteworthy.

Unfortunately, I did sometimes feel that the events rushed by at such breakneck speed that there was little time for emotions to enter the fray.  I enjoyed the evening but did feel that a lot of historical exposition had been handed out sometimes at the price of understanding Cromwell the man as opposed to the events around him.