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

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.