Quiz and Sympathy

My last year studying dramaturgy, we were all assigned to lead a class during our final seminar, and I attempted to lead a session about casting and dramaturgy. I did a terrible job– I think I’d do better now– but it also seemed to me that most of my classmates didn’t seem to agree with my central premise that casting is a feature of dramaturgy, and that it can and should be part of a dramaturg’s job to concern themselves with casting.

One element of this is more in the news now than it was even then: the possibilities and pitfalls of changing the gender or race or other identifiers of the character or actor playing the character, and whether this change is reflected in the text or is “blind,” and whether good intentions for diversity outweigh the potential for important implications if the casting choices aren’t considered important enough.

But after seeing James Graham’s Quiz on the West End yesterday, I found myself thinking about the more basic type of casting I attempted to lead a discussion about in that class: the simple ways in which the actor you choose to embody a character changes how an audience feels about them. My thesis at Columbia was ultimately about the ways this can change when a character’s gender changes, but this is true even when the basics of the character remain and only the actor changes.

I found Gavin Spokes, who plays Major Charles Ingram in Quiz, to be immensely appealing. I voted him in both the first and second acts, and immediately had to hurry home to Google what had become of him. But then something funny happened: looking at pictures of the actual Ingram, reading some of his quotes, I found I liked him less. I didn’t find the real Ingram as endearing as Spokes’s version at all, and it set me to wondering how I would have voted if someone more like the real Ingram had been cast. My parents and I were shocked by the results of the final audience vote, but they pointed out that people who actually remember the whole scandal were probably more biased against Ingram than we were as totally neutral outsiders, who knew nothing of the story going in. But maybe a more unappealing Ingram– or the memory of the actual one superimposed over Spokes’s sweeter version– would have swayed us another way.

This got me thinking of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which I first saw during its off-Broadway run at Ars Nova, then again when it was in its midtown Kazino location, and for a final time on Broadway. After seeing it at Kazino, I found myself feeling some sympathy for Anatole, the amoral antagonist who jilts Natasha, the heroine. Maybe he really did love her, I thought, and his crime was not heartlessness, but weakness, an inability to own up to his circumstances and responsibilities. But then, between the Kazino and Broadway runs, I listened to the cast recording a lot. And the more I listened, the more repulsive Anatole seemed. He was a cowardly, heartless, thoughtless creep (and an emblem of the kind of unthinking privilege that makes the show much more relevant to our current moment than I think even the critics who liked it gave it credit for, but nevermind).

It should be noted that Lucas Steele, who played Anatole, is– as the show puts it– hot. Extremely hot. Distractingly hot. Like, sufficiently so to distract you, maybe, from how awful Anatole is because he’s just so freaking attractive. But just hearing his voice on the recording– though he also has an amazing voice– grants enough distance from his physical beauty to focus on the ugliness of his behavior. This is, of course, exactly what happens to Natasha in the show, so maybe it was intentional.

This is all, of course, absurdly subjective. There are actors who will make me hate a character simply because they are the one playing the role, and there’s nothing a director can do about that. But it’s so easy to lose track of the ways in which the simplest of casting choices– not even dramatic ones like race or gender, but straightforward ones like whether it’s White Guy A or White Guy B, can completely change the audience’s experience of the character and story– and thus, actually change the story itself.

Review: Ink

Politics and analytics website FiveThirtyEight recently came out with the conclusion of their series evaluating the role of the media in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. There have been similar analyses and reckonings regarding the role of the press in the outcome of the Brexit vote, all pointing, like the FiveThirtyEight piece, to one question: how did all of this happen? 

James Graham’s new play Ink, transferred to the West End from the Almeida, proposes that our world today is nothing but the natural culmination of a shift in media culture set into motion a long time ago.

It’s an indirect connection, however. The play doesn’t directly address anything about the present day: it’s all set in 1969 and 1970, and concerns the purchase of failing newspaper The Sun by an Australian upstart named Rupert Murdoch, who woos Larry Lamb, a working-class former reporter with a chip on his shoulder, to be its editor. Murdoch’s goal: to embrace capitalism, not any lofty notions of journalistic responsibility, in order to crush the narrow-minded elites of Fleet Street. Most of all, he wants to surpass the circulation numbers of the most popular newspaper in the world, The Mirror— which just happens to be Lamb’s former paper, where he never received the editorship he felt he deserved.

Though Murdoch is the more internationally famous name, Lamb, played with slouchy Northern charm by Richard Coyle, spends most of the play as the guiltier party in the game of dragging the ideals of journalistic integrity into the populist, lowest-common-denominator mud. Murdoch is the distant, awkward money man, prone to fits of scruples and prudishness; Lamb accepts his mission to give the people what they want, to do whatever it takes to beat the Mirror, and (almost) never wavers from it.

Though his role is the smaller of the two central characters, Bertie Carvel’s Murdoch begins the play, and is magnetically fascinating. Carvel is an improbable chameleon. His voice is incredibly distinctive, his choices in physicality and characterization all similarly strange, and yet every character he plays seems completely different and completely human. He is always himself (or at least whatever version of that appears onstage), but he can always seem to shift that same essence into something different. Murdoch is no exception.

Rupert Goold finds the perfect staging language to complement Graham’s not-quite-naturalistic script. This, along with Graham’s sparkly dialogue, help elevate what is otherwise a fairly standard structure and recognizable Fleet Street Faustian story arc. Clever movement sequences and even a bit of singing create cinematic-feeling montages, most of which are recognizable from any movie about young upstarts: the “getting the gang of misfits together” montage, the “spitballing new ideas” montage, the “look at our successes” montage. Even if they follow a slightly familiar pattern, they are– much like the newspaper this band of outcasts is trying to build– cheeky and fun, and thus mostly avoid cliche. As the play moves into its darker second act, the pace grows even more driving.

The protagonists’ moral downfall (and it’s surely not a spoiler to say that there is one, since both the play’s structure and actual history make this obvious) hinges on two crises, both of which center around women: one murdered, and one naked. The latter subplot introduces a laudable, if not wholly integrated, attempt to include the perspective of a woman of color in this very white, very male world and play. It also somehow comes off as seeming more depraved, more scandalous, and more heartless than the murder. Graham’s script seems generally uncertain about how to draw the moral lines around what Lamb and Murdoch are trying to do, when to suggest they have gone too far. Though it’s clearly intentional that the play lacks a clear right and wrong, the characters lack a clear moral compass, too, which is a detriment when telling the story of men selling their souls for success. Lamb and Murdoch trade off moments of hesitation, only to be seduced once more by their own power and success– but these waverings don’t always come off as totally logical. They seem to swap capitalist ruthlessness for scrupulous reticence as needed to balance the other’s state of mind, not out of their own convictions.

Lamb and Murdoch’s rivals are relentlessly painted as stuffy, snobby, and elitist, with only glimpses of sympathy for their position. Given that all the weight of our present media crises falls firmly on their side of things, perhaps the play can stand to stack its cards– at least at first– in favor of the broad-minded populists. But with hollow protestations of working-class solidarity on the one side and ivory tower elitism on the other, Graham certainly presents two dispiriting poles, with very little hope for what could come in the middle.

But, as Murdoch says in the play, it’s a writer’s job to hold the mirror up to society– it’s not their fault if we don’t like what we see.



Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I sometimes think that the most effective plays invite an audience to step into the mind and heart of someone whose point of view the have never previously had cause to consider; to spend an evening looking through someone else’s eyes. This is what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel by Simon Stephens, achieves. 

Masterfully directed by Marianne Elliott, Curious Incident sees the world through the eyes of Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, confused by people but brilliant at mathematics, and determined to set the world to right when he finds his neighbor’s dog stabbed with a rake in her garden. Graham Butler presents Christopher with complete, guileless sincerity and impressive physical control. Elliott and her designers create a technological dreamscape: a black box of a set intersected with a light-up grid, projections of mathematical equations, numbers, drawings, and noises, roiling ensemble movement by Frantic Assembly’s Vicki Manderson– and Christopher at the center of it all, whose alternating coldness and intensity, when cast against this depiction of his elaborate and confusing perspective on the world, become perfectly understandable. Christopher sees his journey as an epic quest or a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and the play itself never mocks him by reminding us to think of it otherwise. 

The action is complemented by narration ‘written’ by Christopher and read out by one of his teachers, Miss Siobhan (Sarah Woodward). From her, as well as Christopher’s neighbors and parents, we get glimpses of the workings of the world outside Christopher’s mind. We see or overhear only the conversations and exchanges that Christopher does, but often we receive information from them that he does not. It’s a really remarkable and effective layering of Christopher’s subjectivity and our position as outsiders looking into his world; we are never fully pushed away from our alliance with him, but we simultaneously can fill in richer details about the ‘real’ world that all rush to the forefront in the beautiful final moments of the play. 

Curious Incident takes full advantage of the opportunities presented by live theatre (at one point literally declaring its intention of doing so) and revels in the limitations. I never thought that this might make a good movie (a far-too-rare feeling with new plays, in my opinion) and more significantly for an adaptation, I never found myself wondering about the novel. Not that I’m not curious to read it now, as I’m sure it’s very good, but the storytelling and even the narration never left me picturing words on the page, or wondering how a scene would have been illustrated with prose. The story felt not like prose slightly twisted to fit onstage, but essentially theatrical. 

The success of such an unusual story in both London and New York probably speaks for itself, at this point. But it’s always exciting to experience such a moving, well-crafted evening at the theatre. 

Top Plays of 2014

I’m positive that there are things I’m missing from early in the year, because I only have notes through April with me now. But, in chronological order, here are my top ten plays from 2014. It was harder to narrow down than I thought it would be, and so when it was a close call I went with the ones that have stuck with me, and that I’ve kept thinking about long after I saw them. It’s been a pretty remarkable year for shows like that. 

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: This is probably cheating, since I saw it for the first time shortly after moving to NYC in 2012. I absolutely adored it then, and I absolutely adored it when I saw it again after its move from Ars Nova to a bigger midtown location. It’s a rock opera, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, adapted from a small slice of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Young, naive Natasha Rostova travels to Moscow to await the return of her betrothed, Andrey, from the wars, but finds herself enchanted by the beautiful and not wholly trustworthy Anatole. Her story eventually intertwines with that of Pierre, Andrey’s best friend, unhappily married to Anatole’s sister. Dave Malloy originated the role of Pierre (though he was no longer playing it by the time I saw it in 2014) and Philippa Soo, playing Natasha, is staggeringly talented and a name to watch. 

The music is beautiful, the performances were spot-on, the staging was inventive and made sitting through a three-hour rock opera adaptation of a Russian novel a positive delight. Oh, also, the actor playing Dolokhov gave us free wine because we happened to be sitting with someone he knew, so… all around, everything you want from an evening of theatre. 

(seriously, if anyone reading this doesn’t know this show, download it at once, it’s truly great) 

2. Twelfth Night: Okay, this one is probably also cheating, because I also saw this in both 2013 and 2014. But it’s part of the reason I’m here in London now, so that’s probably important. And this production completely transformed the way I look at Twelfth Night, which I freely admit I never much liked before, and now consider one of my favorites. This production allowed me to rediscover the joy in the play, which a lifetime of watching knock-offs of the Trevor Nunn film version had almost completely sapped away. It was my first all-male production, and I found the experiment fascinating– and also that it justified my impulse that there is more than just nerdy dramaturgical interest to be gained from understanding early modern playhouse practice as deeply as possible… which in turn helped me justify the mostly completely batty decision to come to London. 

3. Cripple of Inishmaan: This play taught me that I might possibly like two things I thought I didn’t: Daniel Radcliffe’s acting, and Martin McDonagh’s writing. Blasphemy, I know– but the only thing I ever read of his was The Pillowman, and then I was too traumatized to read more. But Inishmaan was an utter delight, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I seriously misjudged Daniel Radcliffe’s talents– and more importantly, I think, his humbleness and his obvious dedication to working hard at the job of acting, not just coasting along as a movie star, as he obviously could. 

4. Much Ado About Nothing: I was terribly excited for Shakespeare in the Park’s Much Ado About Nothing, and the show far exceeded my high expectations– mostly by completely transforming those expectations. Like Twelfth Night, this production completely changed my understanding of the essential dynamics of the play. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater’s Beatrice and Benedick were unlike any I’ve seen in the best possible way: rather than being obviously the two smartest, coolest people in the room– so that the question of their getting together only seems to be an eye-rolling matter of when– they portrayed the quarrelsome lovers as proud and prickly, lashing out when you sense they’d rather reach out, if only they weren’t too afraid of being mocked. This is not to suggest that the pair were soaked in maudlin self-loathing, but rather that their vast intelligence and genuine high spirits were also undergirded with a strong instinct for self-preservation. Most interestingly, this had the effect of raising actual questions about their eventual union. Would they actually manage to overcome their quips and fear to get together? Their public denials in the last scene read to me, for the first time ever, not just as a silly final layover before the inevitable happy ending, but a moment in which there seemed to be a real chance that they would choose pride and safety over happiness at last. 

5. Two Gentlemen of Verona: My wish for 2015 is that more people start producing all-female Shakespeare that a) isn’t The Taming of the Shrew and b) doesn’t feel like it needs to hedge its bets with explanations, framing devices, and commentary. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Two Gentlemen of Verona was a perfect example of the power that simply presenting a play and letting women embody it can have. The gender decision spoke for itself: director Sarah Rasmussen wisely recognized that no more adornment was required.  

6. Into the Woods: I’d never actually seen a live Into the Woods before this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s a hard play for many musical theatre fans to see, I think, because the filmed Broadway version casts such a long shadow. But Amanda Denhert’s production straddled the perfect line between staking an interpretive claim and sucking the magic out of the show by privileging the director’s vision above the strength of the play itself. It was, in other words, sufficiently different from the original version to shake off the specters of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien, but did not feel the need to achieve this by, say, setting it in modern-day New York City.  

7. Julius Caesar: Yet another production that helped me see a play I thought I knew very well in an entirely new light. As I wrote, the trouble with Julius Caesar often seems to be that all the good bits– or at least all the famous bits– happen in acts 1-3. But Tom McKay’s beautiful, soulful Brutus so fully inhabited the heart of the play, it became not just a story of politics and assassination, but a character study that had to be followed to the bitter end. 

8. The James Plays (plus part 3): I can’t stop thinking about these plays. Weeks after seeing them for the second time, I had to go buy the script because I couldn’t stop trying to remember lines, scenes, and moments. The last time I can remember seeing a play and it having that kind of effect, the play was by Shakespeare. The opening scene of James I might be one of the best-written first scenes I’ve read, full stop. I’ve linked them anyway, but my reviews are so far from encompassing what I’ve come to think and feel about these plays, because I wrote the reviews right after seeing them, and it turns out these plays take much more time than that to fully unfold. 

9. Charles III: When I first read about Charles III last spring I was desperate to see it, and I’m so glad that I not only got the chance, but it was exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. I was worried that I wouldn’t understand the politics of it, but Mike Bartlett’s drama is much more human than that. It’s a classic Shakespearean historical tragedy, and its setting in the near future rather than the past only serves, somehow, to reinforce this feeling. As the man said, what’s past is prologue. 

10. The Knight of the Burning Pestle : How often do you feel pure, joyful delight in the theatre? Not often enough. But what’s so remarkable about Burning Pestle is that it achieves this joy without just being a confection of a play. It’s terribly silly, but it’s not shallow. George and Nell ground the play, radiating warmth and welcome. If more plays reminded people that there’s no right way to go to the theatre, maybe more people would come. 

Review: Charles III

One year in middle school, my very liberal social studies teacher (the same one who went on periodic rants about how Andrew Jackson should be taken off the twenty– which he should be, by the way) taught us about the odd little laws encoded in some of our state’s land use and real estate legislation, including fun little tidbits like it being illegal to sell certain pieces of land to African Americans. Obviously these were eventually superseded by civil rights legislation, but that’s also why they remained on the books, inactive. It’s amusing and in some sense slightly chilling to realize that there are arcane little bits of retrograde weirdness lying dormant within our legal system, perhaps just waiting for someone who is sufficiently clever and bigoted to find a way to carve them out.

In England, of course, that vestigial legal oddity is hidden in plain sight: the monarchy. It’s still there. It sucks up massive amounts of taxpayer money. They have no power, but because England lacks a written constitution, that fact is maybe more of a gentleman’s agreement than a law. At least, that’s the tenuous situation that Mike Bartlett’s fabulous King Charles III, now on the West End after opening last spring at the Almeida, proposes.

Shortly after the death of his mother but before his own official coronation, now-King Charles is growing anxious and perhaps (as Camilla says) a bit angsty about the end of his long wait and his imminent rise to… well, not power, exactly. Anxious to make the monarchy meaningful, and spurred on by some dubious politicians, Charles declines to sign a bill into law, setting off a chain of events that seem as if they might plunge the country into civil war.

Also it’s written entirely in iambic pentameter.

King Charles III is Shakespearean not only in its language and scope, but in its approach to the question of power. Prince Harry raises what I sometimes see as the central question of Shakespeare’s historical tragedies: can’t bring a modern prince mean not having to give away your soul? Charles himself has very much the air of Richard II– petulant, power-hungry, and increasingly bordering on madness– yet also undeniably appealing in his bumbling yearning for self-definition and winning candor with the audience. Tim Pigott-Smith’s marvelous performance keeps the character from flying off into caricature, rooting him soundly in something touching and human.

The other characters privileged to speak to the audience are William (Oliver Chris) and Kate (Lydia Wilson), the latter of whom nearly steals the show with the revelation of an iron will and powerful ambition. There are gestures towards Lady Macbeth as she none-too-subtly steers the somewhat hapless William towards power, but Kate’s masterful command of the trappings of modern-day royalty are unparalleled in the play, and she’s ultimately too canny to just condemn.

The one major misstep is Prince Harry’s strangely underdeveloped subplot. Disillusioned in a Prince Hal-ish fashion with life and royalty, he falls in love with a commoner, a flat Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose dearth of personality leaves their storyline nowhere to go. It’s a shame, as Richard Goulding’s tortured Harry serves, when he is alone, as a neat parallel to his father’s crisis of self, and as mentioned above, the potential for Shakespearean-inspired exploration and allusion is rich (director Rupert Goold pointed out Harry’s similarities to Hal in an interview) But Bartlett ultimately seems to lose track of the thread, tying it off in an abrupt but not unexpected manner. But this is basically the only false note in an otherwise masterfully orchestrated piece.

The morning after seeing King Charles III, I woke up to the latest from Ferguson, MO, and the grand jury’s failure to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. On the one hand, this seems to exist on an incomparably different scale from an often silly British political drama. But the question in both cases is the dangerous ease with which our democratic systems can collapse in the face of someone determined to ignore the unwritten rules, or to lean too heavily on the letter of a law we thought we’d all agreed to ignore. One of Barlett’s most brilliant choices is to make Charles basically right: the bill he declines to sign is a draconian-sounding privacy law that would curtail the freedom of the press. But, as the Prime Minister in the play says again and again, the question at hand is not the content of the bill, but the principle behind Charles’s action. It’s not a monarch’s role to dictate policy by omission any more than it seems fair for a prosecutor to manipulate an indictment.

And in this, Charles’ fears and his rebellious subjects’ fears are one and the same: the fear of loss of control, of society suddenly ceasing the function the way you always thought it did. That after a lifetime of waiting and preparing, it turns out there’s nothing at the end of it after all. The heart of the play is deeply human, and in this Bartlett is Shakespearean once again: somehow, the stories of kings always seem to end up as tragedies.

Review: Scottsboro Boys

When, after the show, a friend described The Scottsboro Boys as “Just so Kander and Ebb,” I found myself first agreeing, and only after considering what exactly that meant. She was referring of course to John Kander and Fred Ebb, the composer and lyricist of The Scottsboro Boys, and who are famous for Cabaret and Chicago. I admit these are the only other musicals of theirs that I’m familiar with, so I can’t speak for their style as a whole, but the structural and stylistic parallels between these three shows are quite clear. All are framed stylistically as offshoots of vaudeville: something close to a traditional vaudeville for Chicago, the eponymous Cabaret, and for Scottsboro Boys, a minstrel show. These frames compliment and ironize, emphasize and undercut the stories they are telling, and most of all they use their roots in popular culture and infectious entertainment to pull the audience deep into complicity in the atrocities that all three musicals (in varying levels of directness) depict. 

Directed for Broadway, then the Young Vic, and finally the West End by Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys opens with a white man who identifies himself as The Interlocutor (Julian Glover). He is the MC, as it were, of the minstrel show where, assisted by Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon)–whose names probably make their identities plain– and nine other black actors, the story of the nine young men falsely accused of and imprisoned for rape in 1930s Alabama will be told through song and dance. It’s not a music/content marriage that was found universally happy by American critics. 

It certainly doesn’t make for an easy watching experience, either. There came a point fairly early in the play where clapping for the grotesquely cheery numbers began to feel just plain wrong… but at the same time, not clapping felt like an appalling breach of theatre etiquette and an insult to the fabulous performers. I settled on an awkward golf-clap after most numbers. You could practically feel the audience’s relief at numbers that hit a note of satire that felt appropriate to fully clap at– both, not coincidentally, numbers at the expense of well-meaning but desperately misguided white characters (all of whom, except for the judges and the governor of Alabama, were played by members of the black ensemble).  

The most powerful element of Scottsboro Boys is one that it is possibly the most awkward to explain, so let’s just go for it: it recognizes that, as a musical (and one which had its debut at the Vineyard and then moved to Broadway), its audience is almost certainly predominantly white. So often, when plays try to force a sense of ‘complicity’ on the audience, I find it frustrating and heavy-handed, unjust in its broad sweep. But in this case, the use of theatrical etiquette, and indeed the very fact that the audience was present watching the show– like, as I mentioned above, the need to clap– to force the audience into an awareness of the role of society broadly in the tragedy of the Scottsboro Boys’ lives and deaths felt perfectly suited. Perhaps this was also because it did not feel accusatory: this is not a show that begs for you to offer tribute of your white, liberal guilt, but rather to witness and acknowledge the story it is telling. 

The history is loosely told, the compression of events and time facilitated by focusing in on the prisoners’ perspectives and glossing over some of the more complex legal maneuvering that was going on while they waited in jail. Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon) emerges as the central Scottsboro boy, his fierce resistance to accepting defeat shaping the major arc of the story. Dixon is wonderful, his voice stunning. The whole cast is wonderful, all true triple-threats, as is to be expected in a show created by director-choreographer Susan Stroman. 

The marriage of satire and pathos, minstrelsy and dark American history was not one that all reviews of the Broadway production found happy. I thought that the blend was almost perfectly pitched to elicit just the right amount of entertainment tempered with just the right amount of horror. The only serious misstep is the ghostly presence of a mostly-mute female character (Dawn Hope), who hovers at the edges of the action and whose identity, when its revealed in the final moments of the play, I found to be a disappointment. 

Mr. Tambo, Mr. Bones, and Haywood are all played by American actors; Domingo and McClendon have followed the show since Broadway, Dixon starred at the original Vineyard production. This seems to be a wise choice. I found myself wondering what the British actors made of performing the infamous blackface number– it feels important that Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo in particular be presented by actors with a more profound knowledge of the racist history they are embodying. I did wonder if others in the theatre had the same experience as I did, if the fascination and discomfort and willingness to embrace the blame that the play offers are not as accessible to a British audience. I’m fascinated by whoever had the idea to bring it to London in the first place. But I’m happy that someone did. Everything else aside, it’s too rare to see a new musical that feels created by masters of the form. 

Review: Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies

There are two things to love, basically, about Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell series, a trilogy of which two books have been published, which is being made into a mini-series starring Mark Rylance, and which the Royal Shakespeare Company has adapted into a pair of stage plays, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. These two things are Mantel’s prose, which can be dense and confusing but I find intoxicatingly rich and thoughtful; and the man himself, Thomas Cromwell. Her Cromwell becomes almost a proto-populist, a self-made man who ascended from the slums of Putney to King Henry VIII’s right hand, thoughtful, impossibly brilliant, and brutal. Only one of these things can be translated to the stage with much grace. Luckily, playwright Mike Poulton and the RSC recognized this, and bring to the stage two exciting historical dramas that are unencumbered by attempts to weave in Mantel’s narration and anchored by the fascinating and wonderfully portrayed figure of Cromwell himself.

It seems unlikely that these rather long and historically heavy adaptations would have made it to the West End (with a Broadway run to follow next spring) without a Cromwell as perfectly cast as Ben Miles. True, he doesn’t quite match the Holbein portrait, nor the frequent description of Cromwell in the books as looking like a murderer. But bulked out by black sixteenth century garb, continually forced to doff his black skullcap, he is a man who can never manage to recede into the shadows like his social superiors think he ought to. 

“Why do you have to be such a person?” the Duke of Norfolk complains of Cromwell in the novel (the last cut line I’ll quote, I promise). Miles’s personhood is equally undeniable, and what we lose from the intimacy of Mantel’s prose, we gain back with his expressive performance. Beneath his intimidating appearance and dry wit, it is easy to believe in the loyalty and love that lie at the heart of most of what he tries to do– and also to see those generous impulses convincingly curdle into something more vicious by the second play’s end. 

The subject matter is essentially the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and mother of the future Queen Elizabeth I. This trajectory is shadowed and aided by Cromwell, who escapes the wreckage of the career and life of his former master Cardinal Wolsey with promises to both the King and Anne that he can do what the Cardinal could not: secure Henry a divorce. But as Anne falls out of favor, despite her threats to bring Cromwell with her, he becomes the instrument of her downfall, taking to heart to the lessons learned from Wolsey’s fall. 

Jeremy Herrin’s inventive staging hearkens back to the Shakespearean history play in which these pieces clearly have their roots with a largely bare stage and fluid scenic transitions. Cromwell rarely exits, more often facilitating scene changes by retreating to a downstage corner to bow to whatever member of the nobility is newly entering. Elaborate period dances convey the tense social geography of the court without any dialog at all, and a court play involving a caricature of Cardinal Wolsey and some devils is as attention-grabbing and chilling as its lasting resonance in the plot demands. 

The costumes are, as should be expected, quite stunning, and go far to helping differentiate the actors who are playing multiple characters. Paule Constable creates some truly beautiful lighting effects, particularly to highlight the ends of acts. There is live music, which is always exciting, and it features an interesting and effective mix of period and contemporary instruments. 

The plays are very much structured as a pair: the first is inconclusive, and the second offers refreshers but no detailed explanations about who these people are or what is going on. Poulton’s streamlining of the storytelling is masterful, and he has a keen sense of how to replace and reshuffle minor characters in order to make the best use of his necessarily limited cast. The conflation of several Wolsey servants in early scenes into the lute player Mark Smeaton is a particularly well-crafted example of this. He is less forward-thinking about foreshadowing many of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting (with Jane Seymour the obvious exception), resulting in the late introduction of figures such as Mary Shelton and Lady Worcester who offer crucial information but, especially due to the tight doubling of the female actors, somewhat blur together. Poulton also does not trouble himself with leaving room for a part three, which allows him to excise some characters who are featured in the first two novels, but seem destined to come into their own in the third; notably, Thomas “Call-Me-Risley” Wriothesley. 

Cromwell is faced with four major counterparts: his sometimes-ally Anne, who simultaneously sees his use as a fellow advocate of Protestantism and as a devilishly effective lawyer, but resents his rise to power and his low class. Sir Thomas More, on the other hand, does not seem to begrudge Cromwell his background, but cannot tolerate his schismatic religious views and his political utilitarianism. Though the men offer frequent protestations of friendship, they are difficult to believe. 

In the opposite corner, his more devoted allies: Wolsey (a delightful Paul Jesson) and eventually King Henry, though the latter’s childlike mercuriality, wonderfully captured by Nathaniel Parker, is hardly solid ground for building on, and the increasingly large collection of ghosts that drift through both plays are a frequent reminder of what ending up on the wrong side of one of Henry’s fancies can mean.

Onstage ghosts can be just plain tacky, but they are masterfully deployed here. Though they haunt the stage, Cromwell himself does not seem particularly troubled by them (or at least, all but one), and carries on fairly casual chats with his former mentor and former enemies. Especially in Bring up the Bodies, they offer the rare opportunities to see Cromwell basically alone. Poulton has, understandably, largely removed Cromwell’s family life, though his wife Lizzie, son Gregory, and protege Rafe Sadler remain. By slimming down their roles and removing the arcs they experience in the books, Rafe (Joshua Silver, dry and charming) especially takes on a new and interesting role. Throughout, he is Cromwell’s shadow, perennially armed with a ledger and quill and dressed in black or dark green. As the second play went on, I realized he was increasingly filling– in a quite literal, physical way– the role that Cromwell once did, standing at the shadows of scenes, so silent and attentive that sometimes it took me until midway through the action to realize that he was even there, watching, listening, taking notes. 

I was skeptical of the many upcoming adaptations of Mantel’s books, largely because, as mentioned, her prose is so distinctive and powerful. A lesser adaptation would have featured pages of direct address, perhaps characters narrating their own thoughts and actions in an attempt to bring along some of her beautiful words and the fascinating webs of interiority that her third-person perspective allows. In some ways, removing this access turns the plays into a more traditional account of the marriage of Anne Boleyn. But Poulton, Herrin, and Miles have captured the heart of Mantel’s Cromwell, and he in turn forms the heart of plays that seem to be made in his own image: fast-paced, forceful, funny, chilling in their depiction of tyranny and shadowed always by the will of an immature and changeable king, the promise that every spectacular rise will be followed by a fall.