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Staging Tudor History – A Review of “Bring Up the Bodies”

Denise at HeverBy Denise Hansen

Denise Hansen has an academic background in history and education and worked for 30 years with Parks Canada in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is a self-confessed Tudor history fan with a special interest in Anne Boleyn.

Full disclosure here. My sole previous experience with the West End London Theatre world consisted of the viewing of “No Sex Please, We’re British” almost thirty years ago.  So I was bound to be impressed, especially when the subject of the play was of intense interest to me, a self-confessed Tudor history addict with a healthy obsession with Anne Boleyn.   I live in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) but a trip to London was in the offing this September, 2014.  I looked into buying tickets to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, theatrical adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning tales of Thomas Cromwell, Henry the VIII’s politically adept henchman who was instrumental in the fall of Anne Boleyn.  When I learned that the successful runs of both plays had been extended I couldn’t resist and booked an expensive  solo ticket to a Saturday evening performance of “Bring Up the Bodies” at the charming, Edwardian-era Aldwych Theatre.  I was not disappointed in the production and the play certainly did what good drama is supposed to do – told a story well, entertained the audience and evoked an emotional experience.  Plays which deal with historical content cannot avoid serving as  “history writ large” and Mike Poulton’s re-work of Mantel’s second book in the Cromwell trilogy successfully pares down hundreds of written pages into a riveting three hour production, without sacrificing too much of Mantel’s trademark witty dialogue.

The stage set was minimalist but effective, with quick, subtle scene changes and the looming presence of a carved cross. The somber grays and browns of the interior set designs were a good contrast with the rich hues of the Tudor costumes, including a memorable scarlet gown worn by Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn.  I was impressed with the narrow strips of real fire which appeared at random times  in the stage floor to depict those ever-present Tudor fires, despite the fact that the effect is far from magically achieved, considering  today’s propane fireplaces.  Snow fluttered from a backlit sky which illuminated Katherine of Aragon’s January funeral and sitting actors swayed into oarsmen escorting Anne Boleyn on her last journey on the Thames.  Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More appear as ghosts, realized figments of Cromwell’s powerful imagination.

The acting was quite wonderful and totally professional. Ben Miles (Thomas Cromwell) lacked the thuggish physicality of the man captured in Holbein’s portrait but he brought a chilling calmness to the role, conveying a snake-like skill in coercion. Nathaniel Parker’s mercurial Henry VIII was part love-sick buffoon, gregarious “bluff King Hal” and the raging lion once alluded to by Sir Thomas More. Jane Seymour was portrayed by Leah Brotherhead ably but I was distracted by her annoyingly high-pitched, whiny voice.  I was surprised to realize from the play program that several actors played multiple roles. For example Lucy Briers played both Katherine of Aragon and a scheming Lady Rochford.  The many characters which peppered Henry’s court were painted in broad strokes and we are given a rather foppish, earring-bedecked George Boleyn and an Eustace Chapuys with an accent that reminded me of something out of a Monty Python movie.  John Ramm played an effective Henry Norris, the oldest of the men accused of adultery with the Queen and one of Henry’s closest friends.

The first half of the play was darkly comic in places but the second was more serious and befittingly tragic. The term “Bring Up the Bodies” is a judicial expression used to summon up accused prisoners for trial but it was also suggested in a more literal sense with a grim scene showing the linen-wrapped, bloody corpses of the five men executed for adultery with the Queen. It expands from the novel with Cromwell’s matter-of-fact suggestions for identifying the headless bodies for burial through physical details that convey the intimacy of the Tudor Court – “Smeaton’s fingers will be worn from the playing of the lute”, “Norris has a scar from a jousting accident”. I was quite moved by that scene since all the executions are shown off-stage.

RSC program picBut what of Anne Boleyn – the character who I was most interested in?  Mantel is not gentle in her portrayal of Anne Boleyn in her novels and evokes what author Susan Bordo (“The Creation of Anne Boleyn”) refers to as the “default Anne” – a shrill, ambitious, viscously smart woman who will stop at nothing to maintain her position. Of course the Anne in “Bring Up the Bodies” is certainly not Anne at her best as she becomes increasingly desperate and isolated, like a cornered animal.  I did not expect a different Anne in the play and Lydia Leonard admitted that she wanted to honour Anne but says; “I personally feel more of a commitment to playing Hilary Mantel’s Anne Boleyn because that’s what going to make the whole story turn.” (RSC, “Bring Up the Bodies” Aldwych Theatre Program).  So we are given an Anne who strides more than walks, who shouts more than talks and who can only be described as unrelentingly haughty. She is however witty, articulate and fiercely intelligent. We occasionally see Cromwell’s wary acknowledgement of this. In fact, Anne was once his ally until the tides turned and Henry desired to be rid of her.  As in the books, the play is quilty of the “sin of omission” regarding Anne Boleyn, and all mention of her corroborated trial speech and anything else that painted her in a more favourable light is quite glaringly absent.   The question of her guilt is left ambiguous though and the play convincingly conveys the awful power of rumour and innuendo in a personality-driven court with so much at stake.  Cromwell’s successful coup was partially a product of luck and timing but the events were molded by a man who was a master of psychological manipulation.

The play does allow for sympathy for Anne. Her execution is not shown on-stage but viscerally rehearsed for Cromwell by the French executioner. There is one line uttered by Cromwell which really resonated.  He remarks on Anne Boleyn in the days just prior to her execution and it is an insightful statement of how far she has fallen – “She has lost her self. All we have to do is bury her.”  For me, that “self” is not the ruthless, scheming political animal of Mantel’s books and this play, but a multi-faceted, courageous woman who by this time had lost friends, family and the love of her King.

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Filed under Across/Beyond Genres with The Tudors: Guest Posts by Novelists, and Bloggers, Artists, Cultural Observers, Historians, Memoirists, Poets

Having It All in the Fifteenth Century

  attachment-3Ever since Thelma and Louise clasped hands and took fatal flight into the Grand Canyon, there’s been no shortage in pop culture of fierce women willing to risk it all for their integrity, freedom, or justice.  Has anyone noticed, however, how unlucky they are in love?  Recently, we even seemed to have generated a new genre of crime-fighting heroine—we might think of them as the daughters of Jane Tennison, Helen Mirren’s professionally steely but personally unstable chief detective in “Prime Suspect”—who quite explicitly pay for their power with disastrous relationships, mental break-downs, and infinite sadness.  The heroines of “The Killing,” “Homeland,” “Top of the Lake”—what a depressed, driven crew!  The only female detective with a cozy home-life is steel magnolia Brenda Leigh of “The Closer,” (Keira Sedgwick), who has now gone off with her beyond-belief supportive FBI hubby and whose successor is “Major Crimes”’ coolly contained Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell.) That neck doesn’t move—her stiffness is part of her charm–let alone bend to receive anyone’s kisses.

 The twenty-first century, it seems, is power-friendly to women but cruel to their love lives.  That’s an old trade-off, of course; we’ve seen it in countless female protagonists from Joan Crawford on (usually minus the “friendly” part): the price of standing up to men or a masculinistic system is an empty bed.  The difference now is that these women are no longer misogynist caricatures (for that we’ve got reality television.)  Women like them, root for them and feel an uneasy but undeniable sisterhood with them.

 For relief from this grim state of affairs, which makes for powerful television but doesn’t exactly attachment-6feed female sexual fantasies, we must turn, it seems, to yesteryear. Or rather, yestercentury—and a time, apparently, when the would-be rapists were gorgeous and a woman could turn a knife on one without, like Louise (of “Thelma and…”), having to pay with her life.  Wait; did I say not paying with your life?  It’s better than that: tell him off, turn the knife on your own throat, and he’ll find you irresistible and make you queen.

 This is “power-feminism” Philippa Gregory style, and despite a pretty unanimous critical thumbs-down, women are loving the BBC/Starz production of “The White Queen.”  From the first episode (the only one I’ve seen, as I live in the US), it’s not hard to see why.  By any of today’s standards, Lancastrian beauty Elizabeth Woodville/Grey (Rebecca Ferguson), having met with victorious Yorkist King Edward (dreamy Max Irons, Jeremy’s son) to ask him to return her (dead) husband’s lands to her, breaks all the rules: engages in seductive behavior that can only (political correctness be damned) be described as “leading him on,” humiliates him by unceremoniously throwing him off when she’s had enough, challenges his manhood by daring him to “doubt her courage” and declaring herself “match for any man,” and—most envy-inspiring of all—her hair maintains its perfect crimp throughout.  And, oh yes, then she gets made queen.

 “But it happened!” Phillipa Gregory, who prides herself on her historical rigor, might say.  Well, yes, sort of…perhaps.  That Edward wanted to make Elizabeth his mistress and Elizabeth declined, inflaming the king’s desire for her, is well known, if the exact details are shrouded in mystery. Thomas More and Shakespeare both recount the tale, although minus the knife; their Elizabeth refuses Edward (as Shakespeare put it) with a “good manner” and “words so well set.”  The knife detail comes from the Italian traveler Mancini, writing in 1483, but in his version it is Edward who brandishes the knife, and holds it to Elizabeth’s throat.  The knife only makes it into Elizabeth’s hands in Antonio Cornazzano’s “Of Admirable Women”; in that version she does not hold it to her own throat, threatening to slice herself, but uses it to hold off Edward. 

attachment-8Clearly, writers have been playing with this story for centuries, and I’m not here to complain about historical accuracy, but to explore the current re-creation.  “Don’t doubt my courage,” Elizabeth declares, already drawing a bit of blood from her translucent neck, “I’m match for any man.”  Female strength and courage that is as potent as any man’s is a theme that is trumpeted in ads for the series (“Men Go to Battle; Women Wage War”), that is underscored by Elizabeth’s mother Jacquetta (descended from a river goddess as she reminds us several times, even her husband says he is sometimes scared of her) and by the audacity of both Jacquetta and Elizabeth when they meet Edward’s proud and disapproving mother Cecily.  Jacquetta (Janet McTeer) soundly puts her in her place by reminding Cecily of some nasty gossip about her affair with an archer, but little Elizabeth is no slouch either, telling the King’s mother (!!) to curtsy to her.

 Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Elizabeth, was drawn to the role because Woodville “was a woman attachment-7who had power.  She was devoted, strong [and] intelligent”; “She’s a medieval rebel.” Arguably, the same might be said about Anne Boleyn, who, as played by Natalie Dormer in “The Tudors,” also won a large female following.  But notice how differently Boleyn’s refusal of Henry VIII is imagined (by Michael Hirst, whom Natalie Dormer criticized for his male “mind-set” and who later regretted his hyper-sexualizatization of Anne) from Elizabeth Woodville’s, as imagined by two women: Gregory and screenwriter Emma Frost.  Boleyn is depicted as refusing Henry in order to lure him into marriage (a ploy concocted, in the series, by her power-hungry family—and Hirst, of course, isn’t the first to follow this scenario); Elizabeth refuses out of pride in her own integrity.  Anne (in season one, at any rate) is a sexy tool; Elizabeth is “her own woman.” Anne is a temptress (“Seduce me!” she tells Henry, albeit in a dream), while Elizabeth, who is no less flirtatious with Edward, her eyes smoldering and her kisses steamy hot before she throws Edward off her, escapes any condemnation for slutty behavior.   She’s a post-feminist girl; she has every right to get carried away by passion and then say “no.”

 attachment-12My point is not that this is a better show than “The Tudors.” In fact, although I will no doubt become addicted to “The White Queen” (I also haven’t missed an episode of “Dance Moms”), I wouldn’t rate it very highly among historical dramas.  Nor have I ever been a big fan of “power feminism”; Philippa Gregory and I have very different ideas about what constitutes “power.”  I would, however, like to see Carrie Mathison of “Homeland” (Claire Danes) be given some time under a tree with a gorgeous, untormented, exuberant lover like Max Irons’ Edward.  Until that happens, I guess women will have to pay for our fantasies with a ticket back in time, where we can enjoy preposterously bold, “talking back” historical heroines “having it all” with their equally preposterous, strong-woman-loving hunks.  

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