Review – Wolf Hall – Royal Shakespeare Company at Aldwych Theater

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There is event theater and there is event theater, and for a certain sort of well-educated, well-read, upper middle class (or just upper class) Londoner, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall was the event they’d been waiting for, enough to pull them out of their sleepy suburbs at 90 quid a head and sell out the first month’s run of the (first half of the) Hilary Mantel double bill practically before it had opened. And there I was, surrounded by people wearing very nice clothes, laughing at all of the “in” English history jokes (“Oh that Jane Seymour! Ha ha ha!”) and British geography jokes (“Yorkshiremen eat Londoners for lunch! An endowed university in Ipswitch! Ha ha ha!) and somehow seeming very pleased that they knew how these things were going to end in the end … or, rather, in the present.

With a nearly bare set – just walls of concrete with crossed lines of light in the back (symbolizing the influence religion on everything) – the actors were left to pull magic from the air with little more than their words, some really luscious costumes, and occasional walls of flame. And personalities really came through – Henry (Nathaniel Parker), who wants so much to be liked (but perhaps confuses lust and kingly duty) – Anne (Lydia Leonard), who has a clear vision of what it takes to achieve power – and Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), who is unswervingly loyal and yet still very, very human.

Or that, I think, is what Hilary Mantel would have us think: for, in this production, none of these creatures comes across as human; only when informed by our memories of her book. It’s a beautiful historical pageant, full of color and movement, but devoid of real emotion. We clapped and cheered and were entertained and perhaps dazzled, but I simply was not in the least bit touched by this show. It’s a shame: there is so much in the source material that I had really hoped it would be there, and while I can’t deny the professionalism and production qualities were tops, I want to feel when I pay that much money. And I didn’t. So while this was an entertaining night out, it was ultimately forgettable, though very popular in a sort of upper class fangirl way. People who want to go to the theater to feel good about themselves and their position in life, this show is for you: if you want to learn a little something about human nature, for my money you’d do much better to see Birdland at the Royal Court.

(This show is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 15, 2014. It continues through the summer, running in rep with Bring Up The Bodies. Tickets can be bought through the RSC site or Ticketmaster but, really, just read the book unless you can get one of the £10 day seats.)

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4 Responses to “Review – Wolf Hall – Royal Shakespeare Company at Aldwych Theater”

  1. RevStan (@revstan) Says:

    I haven’t read the books but I really enjoyed the play (it would take me months to get through them rather than six hours at the theatre). I thought it was bursting full of character and very human and I was certainly rooting for Cromwell by the end. Particularly in Bring up the Bodies you get a real sense of jeopardy.

  2. Tanya Says:

    You obviously haven’t seen Bring up the Bodies

    • webcowgirl Says:

      Well, no, and I won’t, because I can’t say that it’s worth the money. I’ve read the book and that is enough.

  3. Review – Handbagged – Vaudeville Theater | Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl's London theatre reviews Says:

    […] So, factual basis: not only does the PM go to the queen and ask for “permission to form a government” after the election, but apparently the traditionally have some kind of weekly catchup as well. Now, I’d been a tiny bit exposed to this from seeing The Queen, but this is all from the post-Thatcher era and I wasn’t entirely sure how much the interaction of the queen and the PM as depicted in this movie represented reality at all. That said: how much does anything that happens in the palace represent reality? It seems as likely a topic for comedy and satire as any; theatrically, King Charles showed there’s much to be explored in the workings of a monarch in modern times (as opposed to the rather more active workings of historical times). […]

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