Last Updated on October 15, 2021
Hilary Mantel’s Triumphant Finale
The many fans of writer Hilary Mantel have been long awaiting the theatrical production of The Mirror and the Light, the final part of her bestselling Wolf Hall Trilogy. So after the Olivier and Tony Award-winning successes of the earlier instalments Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, there is a huge amount of excitement around the play’s opening at the Gielgud theatre. Mantel has adapted her own novel for the stage in collaboration with actor Ben Miles who returns as Thomas Cromwell. Nathaniel Parker also reprises his Olivier Award winning role as Henry VIII.
The play opens in 1536 to the sound of composer Stephen Warbeck’s pounding drums. In Christopher Oram’s forbidding set the stage is framed by concrete walls and topped by the Anthony Gormleyesque steel frames of a symbolic portcullis. The lighting design by Jessica Hung Han Yun with its emphasis on deep shadows and painterly light emphasises the mood effectively. Cromwell is in the Tower being questioned by his nemesis, the Duke of Norfolk and his henchmen with his fate already sealed.
And then the play goes back in time. Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn has been executed for alleged adultery and his third, Jane Seymour, is under pressure to deliver a son and heir to the restless king. By Henry’s side is his Lord Chamberlain Thomas Cromwell, who has orchestrated Henry’s removal of Anne Boleyn and the subsequent cataclysmic break with the Catholic church that led to the Reformation in England.
Cromwell functioned as a Dick Cheney figure for Henry. He was the ultimate fixer, enforcer and enabler but whilst Henry was happy to delegate power to Cromwell he didn’t share George.W.Bush’s laid-back approach. In the play Henry is ageing with his health failing and fearful of all those around him. He has a Trumpian capriciousness with the added threat that he could have those closest to him executed on a whim.
Ben Miles plays Cromwell brilliantly as a veteran tough guy who has fought his way up from poverty in Putney to his apogee as the earl of Essex living in the the green fields of Hackney! He is visited by ghosts, his abusive father, Archbishop Cranmer and Cardinal Wolsey; but Miles’ Cromwell is no Hamlet and there is no supernaturally-induced existential angst to be reckoned with. The ghost scenes are a device to allow the character to gather his thoughts and to strategise, the equivalent of a soliloquy.
Despite his impervious outer skin there is a sentimental core to Miles’ portrayal as he juggles his affection for his son Gregory (Terique Jarrett) and the pious and naive Princess Mary, in a subtly layered performance by Melissa Allan, with the brutal realpolitik of the times. We see Cromwell at his most emotionally vulnerable in the nunnery scene with Umi Myers as Dorothea Wolsey, the illegitimate daughter of his mentor the disgraced late Cardinal. He offers Dorothea his hand in marriage but she repudiates him, falsely accusing Cromwell of having sold out her father. Miles exhibits a genuine sense of injured pride in the moment but he quickly regroups offering her unconditional support despite her accusations.
Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is a bubbling cauldron of entitlement and insecurity. He is both reliant on Cromwell and nervous of his increasing power paradoxically bestowed upon the erstwhile commoner by the king himself. Parker is in total command of his character, spinning on a sixpence between regal bonhomie and crippling insecurity and loneliness. Any perceived threat is either crushed, bought off or killed as fealty is demanded from all those around him.
As well as the two central characters there is able support from Nicholas Woodeson as the feisty Duke of Norfolk and Nicholas Boulton gives a bluff comedic turn as the Duke of Suffolk. Rosanna Adams is a suitably bemused Anna of Cleves completely unprepared for Henry’s sexual demands, and Paul Adeyefa sparkles as Cromwell’s French valet Christophe, Olivia Marcus captures Jane Seymour’s passive compliance and Leo Wan is excellent as the vain and wily Richard Riche.
Director Jeremy Herrin manages to tease the complex strands of the story and the factional interplay into a coherent whole and sets a pace that never flags. Occasionally the play feels like a series of historical tableaux that unfold in front of you without investigating the darkness at the centre of this narrative too deeply; and sometimes the tone is uneven with comedic moments that could have come out of Blackadder interfering with the dramatic thrust. But The Mirror and the Light is a must-see for Mantel fans wanting closure for their epic journey through the 1500s. If you are new to Mantel-world, the play stands up on its own, delivering a chilling and timely warning about the casual abuse of power.
All photos by Marc Brenner
Shaftesbury Ave, London W1D 6AR
The production is running until 23 January 2022
Ticketing services are provided by Delfont Mackintosh Theatres: 0844 482 5130
Looking for something different? We loved Camp Seigfried, currently showing at the Old Vic