Julian Eaves reviews the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Mirror and the Light now playing at the Gielgud Theatre, London.
The Mirror and the Light
7 October 2021
Hilary Mantel’s third – and, we are assured, final – instalment of the trials and tribulations of Thomas Cromwell, hit-man and factotum to Henry VIII, arrives in London doubtless to sighs of relief in Stratford-upon-Avon. Like its predecessors, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, this looks like it will prove to be a rewarding cash-cow: for a relatively modest outlay on the part of the producing company, tickets for this simple one-set show top an improbable £127.50. Clearly, it is aimed at those who have a great deal more money than most to dispose of. And it hits its target: they are out in force to cheer it on. Good for them.
Others, with a slightly broader and deeper grasp of matters, may find less to shout about. Unlike the previous two ‘episodes’, which were scripted by playwright Mike Poulton, this has been fashioned out of her book by the author herself, working with her star actor, who has played Cromwell throughout, a face known from many television performances, Ben Miles. Quite what this might indicate of a changed ‘behind the scenes’ production dynamic is for audiences themselves to surmise. What it delivers in terms of practical theatrical experience, however, is all too predictable: individual scenes often ‘play’ very well, with writing that is terse, pointed, nimble, vivid and frequently dazzlingly fresh; overall, though, the work suffers from a chaotic lack of structure, which even the best efforts of director Jeremy Herrin can do nothing to disguise.
Matters are not made any easier for the large cast, who have to withstand the raw exposure and scrutiny insisted upon by Christopher Oram’s magnificent modern concrete-walled space, that blazes, smoulders or lowers in Jessica Hung Han Yun’s genius lighting designs (the chief highlight of this production). Oram’s set design is a masterstroke, too, but he erodes its effect by togging up the actors in pretty English Heritage-style period costume, hopelessly at odds with his brilliant contemporary staging (and one cannot help but wonder, ultimately, whose decision this was). Still, much fun is to be had in imagining how much more brilliantly the cast could communicate the clever ideas of Mantel’s script, were they but able to move with the same speed and eloquence as her language.
Now, one thing I confess I do not share is the English public’s apparent morbid fascination with their – increasingly distant – regal past. Indeed, as the long-awaited final collapse of the English imperialist project enters its Brexit endgame, I am in awe of the readiness of people in this country to immerse themselves, without achieving anything like satiety, in the tedious shenanigans of their imported rulers and their many hangers-on. Be that as it may, Mantel has plenty to say about the actual financial motors driving historical events, and the best scenes in this play are those in which she pushes these to the fore, in boldly drawn and memorable dialogues. Take away the fustian and stomachers and you have conversations that depict precisely the same tensions between a remote, despotic ruling class and a country that is without any sense of direction, or identity, of its own. Unlike Shakespeare (but rather like Corneille or Hugo), she concerns herself almost exclusively with the impulsive incompetence and venal self-serving of this ruling class; a single scene featuring ‘common people’ arrives with an unprepared bump, but it goes nowhere, other than to feed into a cheap – but telling – joke about the English not wanting to rule themselves, but instead to submit to a puffed up, titled elite. And then we are back to the ‘who’s-getting-married-to-whom’ gossip level of Tudorland.
As for the performances, Miles is an attractive presence on stage, clearly owning the tale: this is mainly thanks to the lack of variety in his scenes that give his part a consistency denied to most others. By contrast, Nathaniel Parker’s Henry has a variety of oddly shaped hills to climb that, surely, must have inspired a number of interesting discussions in rehearsal. Although, as is usually the case with these gammon-scented slices of English history, this is a man’s world, the women – when they do get a chance to be heard (no proselytising feminist, our Hilary), they are terrific. Melissa Alan’s Lady Mary is a stunningly realised portrait of her father’s power just waiting to seize its day, and change the world. Rosanna Adams is grossly under-used as Anna of Cleeves (wife No.4). And Olivia Marcus brings warmth and credibility to the tricky role of Jane Seymour. Aurora Dawson-Hunte sparkles with frank modernity as her sister, Elizabeth. And Jo Herbert is elegantly perceptive in her roles as Lady Rockford and the Abbess. By contrast, the men are often lined up by Herrin like interchangeable units, which may be a point he is trying to make, but doesn’t make their lives any cosier. Not only that, occasionally, it seems a bit unfair to the superb efforts of Nick Woodeson’s Norfolk (a character that is surely seen in every major boardroom in this country), Giles Taylor’s unctuous Archbishop Cranmer, Leo Wan’s suave Richard Riche and Matthew Pigeon’s bitingly sour Bishop Gardiner. There is also much to admire in the rest of this wonderful ensemble.
So, if you can afford it, go. If not, wait: I suspect we will hear more from the increasingly independent mind of Ms Mantel, and – when we do – it will probably be something we should all listen to, provided she works with an editor or director possessed of a slightly more active blue pencil.