SHAKESPEARE tip-toed around current political issues in Henry VIII, his only play about the Tudors.
Writing in less dangerous times, he might have come up with something as gripping as this double-bill. It’s that good.
So it was no surprise when author Hilary Mantel announced last week that the RSC productions of her prize-winning novels will transfer to London this summer.
Mike Poulton has brilliantly adapted her story of Henry’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell into two three-hour thrillers covering the period from the king’s divorce to the execution of Anne Boleyn.
It’s a tale of frailties in great ones and greatness in commoners.
The drama is intense, the characterisation fascinating, and the dialogue witty and revealing.
Receiving a “piece of the true cross” from Paul Jesson’s Wolsey, Cromwell says they are “five for a florin in Turin,”.
Ben Miles, almost constantly on stage, is superb as the sceptical, calculating (in every sense), pragmatic butcher’s boy risen to king’s secretary, a man so clever that suspects confess without torture. “The lambs are beginning to slaughter themselves,” it’s said.
And when asked after their deaths whether they were truly guilty, Miles raises one eyebrow. Slightly.
Nathaniel Parker is a petulant, self-serving Henry, Leah Brotherhead a twitchy, fervent Mary, Lucy Briers a formidable Katherine, Lydia Leonard the increasingly desperate Anne and Nicholas Day the richly choleric Norfolk.
The second play is darker, with a foretaste of events to come as the executioners try to match severed heads with their erstwhile bodies.
And a troubled Henry asks the now elevated Baron Cromwell what he is to do. He might have done better to have taken his advice.
The plays continue at Stratford until March 29, then the Aldwych, London, from May to September.