Dead body politic: Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies and the Duchess of Malfi on stage

Jeremy Herrin's adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels for the stage is a marvel, if a little overstuffed, with so much plot and counterplot there is little room left for anything else.

Wolf Hall; Bring Up the Bodies; The Duchess of Malfi
Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; Shakespeare’s Globe, London SE1

Adapting a novel, John le Carré once said, is like making a cow into an Oxo cube. The playwright Mike Poulton compares it to turning a Rolls-Royce into a light aircraft. Whichever you go for, the nagging worry as you sit down to watch the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new versions of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is that they will fail to get off the ground – or simply taste of nothing.

It is no small triumph that neither is true of these plays. Poulton’s adaptations – a shade over six hours of theatre, in two instalments – are beautifully engineered and often enthralling as they play out the dizzying chess game of high-stakes Tudor politics. Abandoning Mantel’s backstories and elaborate time shifts, Wolf Hall takes us straight to Henry VIII’s problem: 20 years of marriage to Katherine of Aragon have not produced a male heir. Nathaniel Parker’s king, crashing around the court like a disgruntled toddler, has his gaze on Lydia Leonard’s alluring yet dangerous Lady Anne. The jumped-up Boleyns are imagining the trinkets and earldoms that will come their way. Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) is doing his best but is bustling towards his demise. “The one thing Henry can’t tolerate,” more than one character reflects, “is failure.”

The man tasked with finding success is Cromwell (Ben Miles), the Putney-born son of a blacksmith whose uncanny ability to get things done has lifted him from obscurity to the highest rungs of power. If Cromwell’s real-life achievements (fluency in multiple languages, service as a soldier across Europe and in the Florentine banks) seem awesome, Miles’s in the theatre are pretty impressive, too. Hardly ever offstage, he circles the court like a shark in dark satin, observing and waiting, laying out traps for his enemies and treats for his friends.

Plausible both as blokeish charmer and cold-blooded enforcer, he has a habit of watching the faces of his victims as he outmanoeuvres them – not sadistically, you feel, but simply to figure out how to do it more efficiently next time. It is like watching a Tudor supercomputer at work.

Royal rage: Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Jeremy Herrin’s production is equally impressive and just as fast on its feet, particularly as the wheels begin turning on Anne’s fall from grace. His actors pedeconference furiously, West Wing-style, keeping the action flowing across the almost-bare stage of the Swan. In Christopher Oram’s design, Henry’s court is rendered with mercifully little hey-nonny-nonny: a wooden stool stands in for the seat of a river barge; a cart enters in Wolf Hall loaded with legal texts confirming Henry as defender of the faith and reappears in Bring Up the Bodies as a tumbril bearing the corpses of Anne’s supposed lovers. Nothing seems extraneous. Everything has its place.

So what’s wrong? Perhaps that everything has its place. Whereas the joy of the books is the panoptic curiosity of their vision – their eye for shimmering detail – Poulton’s adaptations are so full of plot and counterplot that there’s barely room for anything else. Only in fleeting moments (the hunting scene that opens Bring Up the Bodies; Henry’s ritualistic signing of death warrants) do the plays find visual poetry to match the piercing clarity of Mantel’s prose. It’s possible to watch and be riveted – as I was – without being in the least bit moved. It’s hard to imagine an adaptation being better done but some cows can’t be boiled down.

Mantel’s intriguing politician seems almost wholesome when set alongside the festering Italian court of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, in which one false move is liable to get you a dagger in the ribs, or a poisoned prayer book applied to the lips. It’s the opening production at Shakespeare’s Globe’s new indoor theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modelled on the kind of space Shakespeare and his peers began to use in the first decade of the 17th century. It is a jewel of a thing: tiny (just 340 seats), exquisitely carpentered from pale English oak and Scots pine and illuminated largely by glistening, golden candlelight.

Full of plot twists and featuring a blood-spattered finale that would shame Quentin Tarantino, Webster’s tragedy can seem schlocky and overcooked. The Old Vic’s 2012 production showed Eve Best’s duchess being strangled with horrific realism, leaving her writhing onstage for the best part of a minute; other directors have emphasised Malfi’s nastiness or the kinky, psychosexual games that flicker across its surface. Little wonder Victorian moralists loathed it; even less surprising that it is one of our own era’s most-revived Jacobean nasties.

Here, however, beneath the guttering candles and to the hushed accompaniment of lutes and viols, the play has a haunting grandeur – it is less torture porn than a morality drama in which good and evil do battle, quite literally, in the shadows. Dominic Dromgoole’s Renaissance-style production is occasionally unwieldy (it could shed 15 minutes and at least one burst of William Byrd) but it has the great benefit of clarity, narrating with wit and energy the duchess’s attempts to control her fate and her war of attrition with her brothers, who hound her to the grave for crossing them.

Gemma Arterton brings an appealing freshness to the role, quick with mocking laughter, then patient and dignified as her suffering mounts. Yet the evening belongs to her siblings, the double act of David Dawson’s Ferdinand and James Garnon’s cardinal. Garnon glides around in his scarlet robes with a carnivorous leer; Dawson has the ferret-like appearance of a young Mandelson, eyes seething with suspicion even before his sanity begins to wobble.

It is the look of the production that lodges in the mind. Candelabras hung above the stage are levered up and down to modify the overall light levels and you quickly adjust to the world of difference that a single candle can make. Characters brush past each other in the gloom, whispering confidences or preparing to kill each other; russet and silver fabrics glow and sparkle for a moment and just as quickly fade.

When a troupe of madmen is brought out of the darkness of a lunatic asylum to dance for the duchess, the moment has a strange, sad beauty. It manages something that the RSC never quite gets: it catches the breath.

(Top) Dying of the light: Ferdinand (Dawson) and the duchess (Arterton) in The Duchess of Malfi. Photograph: Mark Douet.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism