Hilary Mantel’s incredibly successful book Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies translated perfectly on stage when the Royal Shakespeare Company produced them as a two-parter at the end of 2013. It transferred to London and was extended for 6 months due to its popularity. Now, the third and final instalment of this tale, The Mirror and the Light, again produced by the RSC, opens at the Gielgud Theatre, writes Christopher Peacock.
The Mirror and the Light tells the final years of Thomas Cromwell’s life in King Henry VIII’s court. Published in 2020 the novel comes 8 years after Bring Up the Bodies, this time around the adaptation for stage comes from Mantel’s hand in partnership with Ben Miles, who also reprises the role of Thomas Cromwell.
Fans of the books and those keen on Tudor history will be familiar with the multitude of characters that passed through Henry’s court. For those of us who join the fictional telling of Thomas Cromwell’s life two-thirds of the way into the trilogy, the amount of characters that appear in the opening scenes can be slightly daunting and a touch hard to follow. The play certainly gets on its feet sharpish and takes us right into the action of the Tudor court. That action being a lot of standing around and talking.
The set is sparse and industrial in style. The walls have the look of brushed concrete and above, steel cubed girders, mimicking the hammer-beam roof trusses of Tudor halls, are lowered into the space to change locations. The rest of the design falls into what you might expect from an RSC production. The lighting design softened with a fog machine, immaculate period costume and the detailed props sell the whole show and transport you into the halls of Tudor power.
There are strong performances throughout the cast and the work of the ensemble helps highlight the circus of royalty. Ultimately, when fictionalising real historical events and people, especially those from royal houses, unless you wish to alter or change the outcomes their ends are known. Some of the set pieces and Cromwell’s visions hold some real drama but once we know the end is near, the show becomes a little drawn out. Yet the script has many great comic lines and moments with a level of detail that keeps you tuned in.
A basic knowledge of Tudor history or having read or seen the previous instalments would certainly help in following the narrative. Although, with the power dynamics and relationships between the host of historical figures playing out on stage, there is plenty of drama and tension to watch.
Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6AR until 23rd January. Times: Tues – Sat 19.30; Wed, Sat and Sun matinees at 14.30. Admission: ?17.50 – ?127.50. Box Office: 0844 482 5151
Photos: Marc Brenner