If you didn’t know better you’d be remiss to think that royals of old used to spend most of their time hunting, as in the space of six months I have seen two dead stags brought on stage after a successful hunting party – first in Sam Mendes’ King Lear and now in Bring up The Bodies. In this staging though, we have the added pleasure of seeing Henry VIII rip out the animal’s heart to smear blood onto the cheeks of his hunting companions. It’s a bold beginning to the night’s drama and sets the stage for what is about to come.
In this second installment of Mantel’s books, we follow the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn from Thomas Cromwell’s perspective. Set in 1535, it portrays Cromwell’s machination to free his master from the bonds of matrimony to pursue the demure Jane Seymour. No plot spoiler here as we know what happens to Anne but Jeremy Herrin (director) and Mike Poulton (playwright) manage to keep us enthralled throughout and whereas Woolf Hall was a bit weighted down by exposition, here, all is fluidity and court intrigues. The characters have been introduced and the events will unfold, the only question is how will Cromwell deliver the goods and whether he will remain in the golden circle.
Cromwell is a commoner, constantly reminded that he is nothing more than a former blacksmith from Putney. He has the King’s ear but Mantel makes us understand what an outsider he was and how loathed he was by the nobles who jockeyed for position at court. Ben Miles gives a fantastic performance that is subtle and Machiavellian but he remains all the while strangely likeable, until the second half that is. There is a fantastic scene when Cromwell almost comes to blows with the king but drops to the floor, prostrating himself, just in time to be forgiven by the king. We feel the character’s absolute terror at serving a despot. It’s a bit like a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups. Quite mesmerizing.
Of course, Cromwell is the winner. He’s been given a task and he will succeed. He initially tries to get a dying Lord Percy to recant his first perjury that he had not married Anne (which allowed Henry to marry her) but when that fails he settles on Smeaton, Anne’s young and adoring musician. And, who needs facts when you have self-incrimination, false confessions and slander at your disposal. Smeaton names Anne’s other supposed lovers to save himself, but it’s all all in vain, as Cromwell has him executed nevertheless. The tyrant has been made and he’s enjoying the power over life and death, and finally gets his revenge on Anne for Wolsey downfall.
In this second play, Miles is an altogether different and much more complex Cromwell. It is a tour de force to see him on stage almost constantly and in two concurrent plays, each over 3 hours long. The minimal decor allows for scenes to instantly switch making the action moves swiftly and keeping the tension throughout. I personally can’t wait for the third and last installment. Bring it on!