Bring Up the Bodies – the London Play

The new plays in London adapting Hilary Mantel’s award winning best sellers have been compared to a British version of House of Cards – full of political intrigue and back-door negotiations. If you have read and enjoyed the books, seeing them in play form can feel like stepping through the looking glass into Henry VIII’s world. “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” play on alternate nights with a cast of characters (seven of them called Thomas) from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I recently sat in a packed house to see “Bring Up the Bodies.” Over a thousand pages of print unfolded through two acts. The action is easy to follow and as compelling as Mantel’s books with teasingly ambiguous subplots. You will have to decide if Anne Boleyn was promiscuous and incestuous, or if the accusations were merely a convenient way for Henry to move on to Jane Seymour. The asides are as juicy and memorable as Noel Coward’s zingers.

I may have to reread Mantel’s books now; on second thought, it would be easier to wait for the BBC televised series in 2015.

Read my reviews of the books:

Wolf Hall

Bring Up the Bodies

And check out the RSC cast:

Bring Up the Bodies RSC

Bring Up the Bodies

Maybe you’ve already read the history of the mercurial Henry VIII and his wives? Maybe you’ve watched the Showtime series – the Tudors – and have met the villain Cromwell? Maybe you read Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, and discovered a different Cromwell? Maybe not, but the power of Mantel’s continuation of Thomas Cromwell’s influential life will still overwhelm you in her sequel – Bring Up the Bodies.

So many well-written reviews have been posted and published, that you can easily find the summary of this tale and praise for Mantel’s character invention:

“Historically, the royal adviser is considered an unscrupulous bully. In Mantel’s books, he is — like any other man — much more than his reputation”…from NPR

But Mantel’s gift is not in the rehash of history or even her humanizing of a man often seen as a manipulator yet a great statesman who changed the course of history. It’s in the details of daily life, secret dreams, unsure emotions, and the pieces of a mind that the outer world never sees. If you missed the background in Wolf Hall, Mantel graciously revisits Cromwell’s common beginnings (the son of a brewer and blacksmith) – important to understanding the disdain of nobility who were jealous of Cromwell’s influence with the king – and his training under Cardinal Wolsey, his disgraced mentor.

The dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies are everywhere as Cromwell juggles the king’s changing moods, the country’s lack of funds, Queen Anne’s decline into a nervous shrew, and his own ambitions. The focus in this sequel concentrates on Cromwell during the months that Anne Boleyn was Queen, until she fell out of favor and made way for Jane Seymour.

Mantel’s Cromwell is at once despicable and admirable. Revealing Cromwell’s inner soul, as only she can imagine it, Mantel offers a little compassion for a man who is ruled by logic in a world consumed by emotion. Above all, Cromwell is alert to his precarious position – please the king or fall to the scorn of the nobles. Cromwell keeps a Black Book on how to proceed.

What a man would do to maintain power has not changed over the centuries – although the chopped off heads have become more figurative than literal. As I read, I fought an overwhelming inclination to identify Cromwell with an ambitious contemporary man I knew – a number cruncher who rose to power by his talent for logical decisions – unafraid to abandon allies when they were no longer useful, even destroying them when necessary, and like Cromwell, taking revenge at any slights. “His whole career…an education in hypocrisy.” Maybe that is part of Mantel’s magic – discovering ways to identify with a public persona and revealing the man beneath the surface. You still may not like him, but you might be able to better understand his motivation.

Although you know the ending, Mantel still maintains the suspense; as Anne Boleyn walked to her execution, I almost expected a last minute reprieve – as Anne herself hopes. The humorous asides and personal agonies flesh out the historical characters, especially Cromwell. And who knows, maybe that’s really how it all happened behind closed doors.

Cromwell is coming back in the third book of Mantel’s series – I can’t wait.

Related Post: Wolf Hall

The Wolves of Andover

Kathleen Kent references English history during the upheaval of Oliver Cromwell and King Charles to create a fascinating historical fiction around the man responsible for beheading Charles I,  in her latest book, The Wolves of Andover.

Cromwell has rallied Parliament, has King Charles I executed as a despot, and becomes England’s new Lord Protector – a king without the title, only later to be displaced by the Royalists who restore the throne with Charles II.   Through an intricate plot that focuses on Thomas Morgan, the Welshman and soldier executioner of the king, Kent retells this turbulent period in English history by inoculating the facts with a little romance, some gory descriptions of torture and beheadings, and a thriller full of spies and double agents.

Morgan, in hiding in the New England colonies, eventually connects with Martha Allen, who by 1673 Massachusetts standards, is a spinstress, as well as an outspoken, willful woman.  Her father sends her away to care for her pregnant cousin, to help with the children and household duties, and hopefully to find a husband.

You twenty-three and I begin to despair of ye ever comin’ to bed with a husband.  Can ye not for once, guard yer tongue and mind yer place?

Kent has Thomas Morgan (now known as Carrier) and Martha Allen dance a lovely romantic interlude, complete with the tall quiet rogue pursuing the feisty maiden.  Wolves dramatically appear on the scene, marking the beginning of their attraction, which develops into true love and loyalty to dangerous secrets.

Meanwhile, Charles II has commissioned assassins to find and kill Thomas Morgan (Carrier), and bring back the head of his father’s executioner.  The story flips back and forth from the colonies with Martha’s daily problems with her cousin’s household and her growing attraction to Thomas – to England, following the assassins across the sea in pursuit, and “going to ground” to find their prey.

The Wolves of Andover starts slowly, and it took me awhile to get into the necessary rhythm of the prosaic dialogue – placing the story and the characters easily in the seventeenth century.  But, once Kent connects her main characters – Thomas and Martha – the story becomes compelling and an easy way to learn British history.

Kent cleverly links characters she introduces at the beginning of the story to later incidents, and in the end, carefully wraps up all the details – even continuing on to provide more historical data, after the actual story has ended.  The letter to her daughter Sarah provides the segway to The Heretic’s Daughter...and a description I could apply to my own mother…

…tell your children your mother was more ferocious than kind, more contentious than agreeable, more irate than placid, but who cherished her family above all else… and that you had a mother who cared for you beyond  reason, beyond tepid courtesies…that you are, and ever will be, loved…

Kent wrote The Wolves of Andover as the prequel to her first popular bestseller – The Heretic’s Daughter. I haven’t read that tale of Martha Allen (Morgan) Courier and her daughter in colonial Salem – not sure I’m up for another witch trial story.

For more British historical fiction, you might try an amazing story about the other Cromwell (Thomas) in Hilary Mantel’s  Wolf Hall.