I'm going to premise this by saying I haven't read the book but I studied 16th century English and European history at A-level which probably explains why I was surprised by the RSC's Wolf Hall. Surprised, and this is going to sound a tad ridiculous, because it not only brought history to life but it gave it personality.
OK so there is good pinch of dramatic license added to the mix, it is a play based on fictional novel after all, but I never expected the protagonist of the piece Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) to have quite so much charisma and charm. Indeed it chocker full of colourful characters - if only studying this period of history could have been this much fun. It is this which I think makes Wolf Hall such a success - its run in London is pretty much sold out after a successful debut in Stratford.
It has a partner piece, a sequel if you will, Bring Up The Bodies (which I'm seeing in just over a week) and follows the rise of commoner Thomas Cromwell from clerk, friend and confidante of Cardinal Wolsey to Henry VIII's Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Cromwell is a master politician, a clever lawyer and a former mercenary which makes him sound machiavellian but he is loyal and a good-hearted family man whose skill is in negotiation. He gets a reputation as a fixer, someone who sorts things out. In trying to get Cardinal Wolsey back into favour he gets noticed by the King; Cromwell, unlike others in the court, is not scared to challenge or question but he does it with charm and good humour which Henry seems to respect.
There is a lot going on during this period of history - England's relationship with Europe, England's relationship with the Pope and Catholicism and the King's relationship with his nobility and people but the skill in the story is in not overburdening the narrative with the historical and political detail while not ignoring it either.
It is long at three hours but you only have the discomfort of the seats as a reminder. Scenes swiftly melt into the next sometimes with one or two characters just staying in position while a few props swiftly changed around them.
This feels like a character piece wrapped up in a important piece of history and it works really, really well. I was gripped, charmed and amused and I can't wait to see Bring Up The Bodies.
Wolf Hall is booking at the Aldwych Theatre until Sept 6 and the RSC website has lots of pictures and videos to accompany the production.
I didn't recognise him until I saw his name on the cast list but Paul Jesson plays Wolsey and he was in Cock with Mr W