‘Even if you came to it cold, this play would grip you by the throat’: THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT – West End ★★★★★

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Gielgud Theatre, London – until 23 January 2022

It was rising eight years ago that the first two parts of Hilary Mantel’s majestic Wolf Hall trilogy came to the stage, adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin.

I well remember the wild exhilaration of seeing Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on the same day in the little Swan, most intimate of theatres, and well remember feeling – as did others there – that if Mantel had finished the set, Poulton and Herrin made a play of it, and someone wound Ben Miles up for another show – well,  we would happily have stayed all night to see the story out.

Mantel, sometimes difficult to read, has a passionate understanding, or so it feels, of the working-class Thomas Cromwell: the man who shaped Henry VIII’s reign and the English Reformation, manoeuvred through the court politics of the day and then came to grief at last. Like so many others.

This time it is not the  Swan, with an audience wrapped (and rapt) on three sides of the drama, but the conventional Gielgud and a proscenium.  Moreover, Poulton is not the re-shaper of the tale. Mantel, having loved the rehearsal process, wanted stronger input in the script, and her only collaborator aside from the director is Ben Miles, who for the third time is Cromwell.

If there is any difference in approach, I would venture to say that the focus is more uniquely sharp on her hero this time: one of the joys of the first two was the confidence with which every courtier, and every woman trapped by her biology or its failings,  stood out as an individual.

But the untangling clarity (at which Poulton was a master). Is still there;  and Ben Miles remains a powerful and sensitive anchor.   And some other individuals do stand out satisfactorily. Nicholas Woodeson as the Duke of Norfolk is a fierce, cross spiky little hedgehog of a man in a red bonnet, always putting the Howard women forward and detesting the promoted chav Cromwell;  Leo Wan as the sycophantic Riche is convincing and often funny; the Duke of Suffolk (Nicholas Boulton) one of the few entirely likeable courtiers.   Melissa Allan’s primly Catholic Mary Tudor is a sharp little needle of defiance, and poor Anne of Cleves – the “Flanders Mare” rejected by Henry – is given immense dignity by Rosanna Adams,  high-chinned, immaculately evoking the position of a woman who understands the misogynist politics of the age all too well.  Promised a handsome prince and sold to an “angry old bear” for reasons of European political boundaries  and trade in alum for the English wool dyers,  she speaks with contemptuous Germanic dignity of the King’s inability to consummate. “I lie down for him and pray to Mary to give him strength”.   The courtiers’ cry of “What about the alum?” when he demands a divorce got a proper rocking tide of audience laughter.

And of course there’s Henry.  Nathaniel Parker at first gives the performance a little too much of the James-Robertson-Justice-playing-Sir Lancelot-Spratt,  but in the second half his grief for Jane Seymour and awareness of his own weakness become touching, as he cries “Make me happy, Crom!”. It is as much a play about physical decline as about politics.

But we get quite comfortably across the politics: or mainly so. The interval, inevitably, was a matter of people in the aisles who never read the books or much history, scrolling through Wikipedia to straighten out the bits and characters they didn’t quite get . The northern “Pilgrimage of Grace” against Henry’s (and Cromwell’s) depredation of the monasteries is dealt with in mere minutes with a big banner, some shouting,  and a royal roar about not being scared of “rural pisswits!”. But it had baffled my neighbours a bit more than was comfortable.  Probably because they hadn’t been to a Catholic school and firmly told about it by nuns.   The appearance of several ghosts to Cromwell caused one or two more questions in the run to the bar:  there’s his father (Liam Smith, who reappears as Holbein) and the long dead Wolsey (Tony Turner) with a nice line in self-important clerical hauteur even regarding God.

But even if you came to it cold, like the others this play would grip you by the throat.  And if ,one day soon – let it be soon – the first two are revived by the RSC with this one to follow, I will happily pay to devote a couple of days to it.  Especially if it is back in the Swan.

Box office http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk.   To 23 jan

Rating five

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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