Although Ben Miles has had an illustrious acting career, featuring in many well-known and much-loved UK TV series, such as Larkrise to Candleford, he is hardly a household name. But I can tell you that having seen him on stage in both Royal Shakespeare Company productions of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning books about Thomas Cromwell, he darn well ought to be!
The productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, currently playing at the Aldwych Theatre in London, each run for just short of three mesmerising hours, and Ben Miles is hardly ever off the stage. His performance is nothing short of astonishing, not to mention his stamina. On Wednesday and Saturday, they perform Wolf Hall in the afternoon and Bring Up The Bodies in the evening – a marathon for all involved! I saw the two productions three weeks apart, and didn’t feel for a moment that my interest was flagging.
Many members of the cast play more than one part, and it is astonishing to discover that the actress who plays the role of Katharine of Aragon (for those whose history is not quite up to date, she was Henry VIII’s first wife) also plays the part of Jane Boleyn (the sister of Henry VIII’s second wife). She does not just change her costume, but her entire demeanour.
It is a particularly fascinating period of history at a time when England severed its links with the Catholic Church leading to the dissolution of the monasteries, was perpetually on the brink of war with France, and when intrigue among the aristocracy (and those wishing to be elevated to the aristocracy) was especially vicious. Frankly, I think the Borgias and Machiavelli could have taken lessons from them!
Overall, the production is nearly flawless. The stage set is particularly impressive and effective. To describe it as minimalist would be doing is a disservice, but it is certainly minimal. They achieve a change of setting through very clever lighting, and wonderful use of gas fires that erupt from the stage every now and then just as the scene changes.
The production run has recently been extended to October 4, and it’s no wonder. Whether you are resident in London or just visiting, it is a “must see”.
Sara F has lived in several of the world’s great cities, including New York, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney, but for more than 20 years has claimed London as home, not least for its historical, cultural and culinary attractions.