July 23, 2014

Back From a Vacation in London With Thoughts on the West End Hit "Bringing Up the Bodies"

When I told people that my sister, niece and I were going on a just-us-girls vacation that included five days in London, they automatically assumed that I was going to be spending every minute I could there seeing theater. 

But the trip was centered around the interests of my recently engaged niece Jennifer, which meant lots of churches and palaces, plus a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibit “Wedding Dresses 1775 to 2014”—but only one night of theater.  

We spent it seeing Bringing Up the Bodies, the second of two concurrently running plays that have been adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Booker-prize winning novels about the 16th century statesman Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being a humble blacksmith’s son to Henry VIII’s Machiavellian right-hand man. 
Bringing Up the Bodies focuses on Cromwell’s plot to replace Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, with Jane Seymour, his third and the only one of his six spouses to give him a son. In other words, it was right up my history-obsessed niece’s alley. And it’s gotten terrific reviews from the London critics (click here to read some) which also placed it squarely in my neck of the woods. 
Under the astute direction of Jeremy Herrin, the Royal Shakespeare Company has given the show an impressive production. More than two-dozen actors, all dressed in sumptuous 16th century garb, play the members of Henry’s court. The set, by contrast, is stark, the lighting emphatic, and the action fast-paced, even though this portion of the saga runs nearly three hours.
Mike Poulton, who specializes in adapting classic and historical novels for the stage, has had to condense Mantel’s 436-page book but he gets in all the tensions that unfolded as the king, already so desperate for an heir that he broke with the Catholic Church and divorced his first wife, charges Cromwell to find a way to get rid of the also son-less second.
The solution is to charge her with adultery. This will lead to torture and death for some (the accused are the “bodies” of the title) and it will create prestige and power for others. 

The program (which, as always, you have to pay for in London) helpfully organizes the characters according to their allegiances but it may still be hard to keep track of who’s who if you’re not well versed with the tale, particularly since some actors play multiple parts and so many of the male courtiers are named Thomas. 
But I had a different problem: I've already seen so many versions of this story. I've gone through the 1933 Charles Laughton movie “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” the Oscar-winning 1966 film  “A Man for All Seasons” (plus the Roundabout Theatre’s 2008 revival of the play on which it was based) the 1970s PBS series “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” and the sexy late aughts TV series “The Tudors.” 

And that's not even counting my viewing of all the works about Henry and Anne Boleyn's daughter, who would grow up to be Elizabeth I, including the Glenda Jackson TV series from the '70s, the Cate Blanchett films and the terrific 2009 Broadway revival of Mary Stuart with Harriet Walter as Elizabeth and Janet McTeer as her rival Mary, Queen of Scots.

So watching Bringing Up the Bodies made me feel the way you do when your aunt once again brings out the family album: it's nice to see the old familiar faces but at this point you want to be told something new about them. And as well staged as this show is, it fails to do that.

Mantel distinguished her account of the story by writing mesmerizing prose and by transforming Cromwell from a one-dimensional villain into a multi-layered human. 

Ben Miles has been praised for his portrayal of Cromwell and I enjoyed his performance but I couldn’t help wishing that the role had been played by a more intense actor like Simon Russell Beale, Benedict Cumberbatch or Mark Rylance, who just finished filming a six-part TV series based on Mantel’s first book “Wulf Hall” that is scheduled to air next year.
Still, my niece Jennifer, who is even more steeped in Tudor stuff than I am, gave Bringing Up the Bodies a thumbs up. My sister Joanne liked it too, particularly after a brief tutorial that Jen gave her during intermission. And the people sitting around us all seemed equally pleased. 
The production, which is selling out, has been extended at London’s elegant Aldwych Theatre through Sept. 6 but even if you can’t make it to London before then, you’ll probably soon get a chance to make up your own mind about this recounting of the story cause a transfer to Broadway seems as inevitable as the king’s willingness to take a new wife.

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