The Mirror And The Light – review

Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles provide a fitting end to a great theatrical trilogy.

★★★★

Production photo of Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker in The Mirro And The Light at the Gielgud Theatre London
Nathaniel Parker and Ben Miles in The Mirror And The Light

It’s a few years since the Royal Shakespeare Company‘s outstanding stage versions of the first two books in Hilary Mantel‘s trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.  At last, we arrive at the final volume The Mirror And The Light. So did episode three reach new heights or fall from grace?

Just in case you don’t know your history or haven’t read the book, we begin with Cromwell in prison, his fate already sealed. We see who his enemies are and who among his allies has betrayed him.

The prison set is dark and foreboding with high steely grey walls, designed by Christopher Oram. Then we go back in time to when Cromwell was still riding high, and, with a jolt, we realise the court is almost identical to the prison.
Even the King is trapped by what is required of his position but the rest are prisoners to his whims, as well as constantly vulnerable to enemies in the court.

The story of Cromwell’s fall then plays out and is more, not less, tense for our knowing the fate that awaits him. This is not a simple adaptation of a novel. It is a gripping piece of theatre, as if writers Hilary Mantel and Ben Miles have taken the story of Cromwell and written a play about it from scratch.

So we’re not inside Cromwell’s head, as in the book, but rather witnessing this central character’s interaction with those around him, showing how others see him and how he works the court. We see the fragility of his power and his own awareness of his vulnerability.

Jeremy Herrin’s production feels Shakespearean

The play feels Shakespearean, and under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, it looks like a traditional production of one of the history plays, with everyone looking like they’ve stepped out of a painting by Hans Holbein. The language while not as poetic has an Elizabethan style, but also pace and a natural flow. The resemblance to modern day politics or even office politics is striking.

Cromwell, hated by his fellow councillors and by the people, is dependent on the goodwill of the King. British prime minister Harold Macmillan said the greatest challenge for politicians was ‘events, dear boy, events.’ So it proves for Cromwell. A mishandled northern rebellion, the death of Jane Seymour, a disastrous marriage to Anna of Cleves and the king begins to have less faith in his right-hand man. It’s all his enemies need, chief of which is the Duke of Norfolk, played by Nicholas Woodeson as a little weasel of a man, who resents the rise of a blacksmith’s boy above his ancient aristocratic family, and takes every opportunity to bring about his downfall.

Cromwell is always either on stage or being discussed. He is not exactly a good man, actually he’s a greedy manipulator, but he comes across as honourable, at least by the standards of the day, and compassionate, for example to Princess Mary, in a way that few of the others do.

Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker head a well chosen cast

Ben Miles‘ performance as this complex man- laughing, worrying, macho, submissive- his eyes constantly flicking round the room- is a tour de force.
Both he and the King are lonely at the top. Nathaniel Parker’s Henry, the mirror and the light of the title, is a capricious child in an oversized man’s body, self indulgent, self pitying, isolated. A telling moment sees him by alone, feeling the cold, desperate for the warmth of the fire.

With a cast of 24, this Royal Shakespeare Company production has an epic feel. And it is a well chosen, diverse cast, who are a compliment to the RSC’s casting director Helena Palmer.

Melissa Allan reveals the steel in Mary Tudor. You can see Bloody Mary waiting to emerge. Geoffrey Lumb as Thomas Wriothesley and Leo Wan as Richard Riche make you recoil at their sliminess. Terrique Jarrett as Cromwell’s son Gregory adds a bright presence, and Jordan Kouamé was moving as Cromwell’s ally Rafe Sadler, desperate to save him without offending the King. Matthew Pidgeon’s double act as the friendly ambassador Eustache and the vicious Bishop Gardiner was impressive.

Inevitably death hangs over this evening. The two most influential people in Cromwell’s life appear as ghosts:  his old mentor Cardinal Wolseley, played by a jolly Tony Turner, and his father, played with a spitting nastiness by Liam Smith.

I’m sorry if I’ve made the evening sound grim, it’s actually leavened with a great deal of humour. Paul Adeyefa brings much comedy as Cromwell’s faithful French servant Christophe. Nicholas Boulton is a Tigger-like Duke Of Suffolk, a friend to Cromwell in the sense of ‘with friends like these who needs enemies’. Jo Herbert is a cynical Lady Rochford. One of the funniest moments of the evening is when the new queen Jane Seymour, played as a likeable young woman by Olivia Marcus, complains to Cromwell about Henry’s unreasonable demands. An embarrassed Thomas, assuming them to be sexual, tries to coax more detail out of her, only to discover she is referring to the King wanting her to ride with him to inspect the fortifications at Dover.

After the rollercoaster of events leading to Cromwell’s arrest, the ending is downbeat. This is partly because Cromwell accepts his fate with dignity. Despite a dramatic beheading orchestrated by illusionist Ben Hart, it’s a  climax that didn’t leave me quite as shocked or drained as I expected. Nevertheless the play is a fitting conclusion to a fine trilogy.

The Mirror And The Light is due to run at the Gielgud Theatre until 23 January 2022. Tickets from delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Click here to watch the video of this review on YouTube

 

Oscar Wilde Season on Marquee TV – review

★★★

Production photo of The Importance Of Being Earnest from Classic Spring Theatre
The Importance Of Being Earnest

I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth because it is great to have the opportunity to see all four of Oscar Wilde’s classic comedies in stage productions. Unfortunately, good as they are, these Classic Spring Theatre Company versions really don’t work that well on film, hence my three star rating.

I think it’s a lot to do with the difference between theatre and film. For a start, in a large auditorium like London’s Vaudeville Theatre, stage actors need to speak slowly and loudly to be understood at the back of the upper circle. To be fair, when we watch a large scale play on film, our brains usually allow for the slightly melodramatic way actors deliver speeches on stage. However, Oscar Wilde’s fast-moving, sharp-witted dialogue is really sabotaged by this approach. The strong element of melodrama in these plays becomes very obvious.

You also realise just how much of the content of most stage plays is verbal. When we’re watching a drama made for the cinema or TV, we’re used to lots of changes of scene, fast editing, and action. On stage, let’s be honest, in most plays most of the time, they stand around and talk. In the first halves of all of the first three plays, partly because of the pace, I was thinking ‘My goodness, they talk a lot’. This wouldn’t even occur to you if you were there in the theatre, hanging on every word. At least at home, you can press pause and make a cup of tea. Whatever you do, don’t pour a glass of alcohol!

Thank goodness they pick up the pace after the interval. By the way, each interval is spoiled by a silly music hall song, inappropriate to mood of high society that’s being portrayed.

The third acts follow the interval, and in the first three they are invariably the best, as all the plot setups of the first half come to an explosive fruition, the fourth act being how it all works out. These third acts are full of surprises and Wilde’s trademark epigrammatic wit.

Just to remind you, if you want to watch them in chronological order, the plays start with Lady Windermere’s Fan in which a woman thinks her husband is having a secret affair whereas, in fact, he’s hiding a very different secret. In A Woman Of No Importance, a single mother battles with the secret father to prevent her son falling under his influence. Then comes An Ideal Husband in which a secret mistake made early on his career threatens to derail a successful politician but more importantly ruin his marriage to his holier-than-thou wife. Finally, there’s Wilde’s masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest in which the two main male characters maintain secret lives causing much confusion, as well as upsetting a certain Lady Bracknell.

So they all concern secrets, which we now see as being very significant given what we know about Oscar Wilde’s own secret life. It’s hard not see some personal feeling in epigrams like ‘scandal is gossip made tedious by morality’ or ‘Sooner or later we have all to pay for what we do’.

The first three play owe a debt to Ibsen even as Wilde blends in his legendary wit. So there’s quite a bit of serious talk about love and real goodness in a hypocritical society. ‘All lives, save loveless lives, true Love should pardon,’ says one character.

The exception is The Importance of Being Earnest in which Wilde goes all out for comedy from the first line and never stops, even if there is an underlying satire of society’s hypocrisy.

The productions are well acted and the naturalistic, late Victorian settings are spot on. I particularly liked the lightness of Paul Wills’ designs for Lady Windermere’s Fan.

Production photo of Eve Best in Classic Spring Theatre's A Woman Of No Importance
Eve Best in A Woman Of No Importance

In the first three plays, women play major parts and the actors in these productions make the most of their meaty roles. Eve Best is particularly impressive in A Woman of No Importance. Her breathless shock as she reacts to a momentous decision that she makes at the end of the play is heart-grabbing.

You probably want to know about Lady Bracknell. Well, Sophie Thompson plays the part well, enunciating every vowel and consonant as if she wants to control each word she speaks, as well as controlling everything else. There are prototype Lady Bracknells in the earlier plays- typically snobbish matriarchs. Jennifer Saunders is excellent in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Susan Hampshire great in An Ideal Husband but the best is Anne Reid’s employment of a tiger smile as Lady Hunstanton in A Woman Of No Importance.

It’s difficult to make a proper judgement on the quality of the stage productions but the best is An Ideal Husband but then the material is very good. The director Jonathan Church (each production has a different director) has a lightness of touch. And there’s a stellar cast which includes Nathaniel Parker, Frances Barber, Edward Fox and the excellent Freddie Fox, all languid limbs and ironic smiles, as the louche Lord Goring who is, to quote a different Wilde play, ‘pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time’.

Marquee.tv is a subscription channel offering a range of recordings of live performances including many Royal Shakespeare Company productions.

Click here to watch this review on YouTube

This House – Touring – Review

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See my review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

Promotional photo for This House at Chichester Festival Theatre showing Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker. Photo by Johan Persson
Steffan Rhodri and Nathaniel Parker in This House at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

I would never have thought day-to-day politics could be so tense. This House, which I saw at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva is set in the 1970s when Labour was running minority governments and ends at the moment the Tories returned to power. But it’s not about Wilson, Callaghan or Thatcher. The play is set in the Whips’ Offices, the people who organise their party members’ voting.

These are dramatic times as Labour struggles to maintain its majority and govern, a situation not dissimilar to Theresa May’s government. The tension mounts when ‘pairing’ is suspended. This is the agreement whereby members absent through government business or illness have their missing vote cancelled by someone from the opposition not voting. To go behind the scenes and see that our democracy can only work by co-operation and compromise is an eye-opener.

Phil Daniels & Steffan Rhodri in This House at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
Phil Daniels & Steffan Rhodri in This House at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

Many people- some of the Brexit voters and Trump supporters, for example- seem to be rebelling against the perceived cosiness of the establishment. James Graham, author of This House, shows that there is a purpose to this comity. We have only to look across the Atlantic to see how the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats have brought government to a halt after decades of working together.

Politicians Are People

But more than the drama and the lesson in democracy, This House reveals the real people behind the parliamentary constituencies. Plays need characters and This House is packed with flawed human beings with feelings. They are sometimes bullies, sometimes desperate and, most movingly, they can be compassionate. We see that in many cases these are people who care passionately but still respect their opponents and act honourably.

Politicians often try to show their human side in PR exercises- a pint down the pub or an appearance on Have I Got News For You– but This House does a far better job at showing they are as funny, sad, triumphant and tragic as the rest of us.

This House can be seen on NTLive showings. Watch it on YouTube on the National theatre At Home channel from 28 May for a week.

Here’s my review on YouTube