The Mirror and the Light review: Hilary Mantel completes a magnificent theatrical hat-trick

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Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in The Mirror and the Light  (Marc Brenner)
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in The Mirror and the Light (Marc Brenner)

Completing a magnificent theatrical hat-trick, actor Ben Miles and director Jeremy Herrin bring Hilary Mantel’s third and final novel about Henry VIII’s fixer Thomas Cromwell triumphantly to the stage. This is an urgent, propulsive journey through the dense thickets of Tudor court politics, and a wider rumination on what happens when indispensability becomes a liability rather than an asset. Herrin directs with admirable clarity and economy, and the narrative is powered forward by Miles as the upwardly mobile Cromwell and by Nathaniel Parker’s capricious man-child king.

It’s been seven years since this creative team and many of the returning cast first staged Mantel’s lauded Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the RSC in Stratford, before wowing London and Broadway. Some things have changed. Miles, like many of us, is greyer and grimmer. This time he and Mantel have filleted and streamlined her 883-page book; playwright Mike Poulton did the first two. Henry got through two wives in the first two tales. Here he weds three, despite being afflicted with limpness, in at least two senses of the word.

There’s an even greater sense of looming mortality, dysfunction and instability this time around. Designer Christopher Oram recreates his striking set of brutalist concrete slabs dominated by a recessed cross. As for contemporary echoes… take your pick from English exceptionalism, conflict with Europe and unrest in the North. Henry’s realm has run out of Continental alum to fuel the wool trade, rather than actual fuel, however.

Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII (Marc Brenner)
Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII (Marc Brenner)

Like the book, the play could do with a trim. The interweaving of families and factions is fiendishly complicated but even if you don’t know precisely who each character is, you always know whose side they are on and what they hope to gain. It’s populated by a huge, largely strong ensemble, though some performances stray into caricature.

Melissa Allan as Mary Tudor and Olivia Marcus as both Jane Seymour and Katherine Howard make strong impressions in a necessarily macho show. Nicholas Woodeson is splendid as the scheming Duke of Norfolk, Tony Turner very funny as the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey: “Dominus vobiscum – just passing through.” This dead churchman even busts a few moves in the background of a courtly costume ball.

But really it’s all about Miles’s Cromwell, tying himself in strangling knots, plots and promises on an upward trajectory that’s bound to end. And Parker’s Henry, who proves that with unlimited power comes no responsibility at all, fiscal, social or moral. He is beautifully framed throughout, revealed in blazing firelight or surrounded by ripples of obsequiously bobbing heads.

“I’m done here,” Cromwell says at the end, and you sense Mantel, Herrin and Miles echo him. And very well done it’s been, too.

Gielgud Theatre, booking to 23 Jan; themirrorandthelight.co.uk

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