The Mirror and the Light
Gielgud Theatre, London,
until January 23
Hilary Mantel isn’t merely a writer, but a commodity, which means that her work has to be monetised by all means possible.
After the books, the memoir and the television series Wolf Hall, there is now, with a certain grim inevitability, a stage production of The Mirror and the Light. For Mantel fans, I’ve no doubt this historical Muzak will be deemed a resounding success.
It’s got it all: great baronial halls, stage mist, moody lighting, scenes that look like Holbein paintings, and, in Nathaniel Parker, a wonderfully imperious King Henry.
But does it work as theatre in its own right and will it mean a great deal to anyone not intimately acquainted with Mantel’s style and Mantel makes a bit of a carry on the period? I’m not so sure.
Mantel, who has written this stage adaptation with Ben Miles, breaks the fundamental rule in theatre of telling and not showing.
There’s an awful lot of telling going on. Some of their words are mildly diverting, but, of course, the fate of Thomas Cromwell – uncharismatically played by Ben Miles – is well-known and that means there’s little they can do to invest his grisly end with dramatic impact.
I’ve seen, incidentally, some great stage executions, but this one is remarkably feeble: the axe comes down limply upon Miles’s head and he simply gets out of the way well before impact. There are occasionally some great set-piece scenes in Jeremy Herrin’s production – he has particular flair when it comes to staging weddings and balls – but, all in all, it just felt like a very pretentious retread of Blackadder, if not actually Carry on Henry.