Review: The RSC’s “The Mirror and the Light”

I was lucky enough to get tickets to one of the first matinee performance of teh RSC’s “The Mirror and the Light” as a birthday present this year, and I thought that I would jot down some of my thoughts about the play.

Spoiler warning: I am going to try not to give too much away but there will be some small spoilers for the production (and historical events) beyond this point…

So, to start with the positives, I really enjoyed the production! As we have come to expect from this trilogy (and the adaptations), this is well researched historical fiction. However, it is Cromwell’s story so we are seeing events from his perspective (there has been some recent media coverage about the traditional view of the Dissolution of the Monasteries v. how it might have been seen by people at the time). I particularly enjoyed a scene where monastic lands are being divided up, showing political rivals (some of whom had quite conservative religious beliefs) coming together over the acquistion of land. Mantel and Ben Miles have also done an amazing job in condensing aher 875 page novel into a single play.

The production makes effective use of a very simple set that is enlarged/reduced in size, and transformed with a few props to move the action between various location including the extremes of the royal court and Cromwell’s cell in the Tower of London. The use of ghosts from Cromwell’s past as characters for him to interact with continues to work well as means of allowing us into Cromwell’s head without relying on lengthy monologues.

The stage set as Cromwell’s cell

In terms of casting, Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker return as Cromwell and Henry VIII, and reprise their excellent, nuanced performance from Wolf Hall/Bring up the Bodies. Elsewhere, some of the supporting characters have been recast. Nicholas Woodeson takes on the role of the Duke of Norfolk and, having been sceptical based on his cast photo, I have to say that he was Norfolk as I envisage him – stature, stance, arrogant streak were all perfect. Melissa Allen also stood out as Princess Mary, in a role which required her to sing, the songs feeling entirely natural within the play.

So, what are the negatives? The big one for me is the pacing of the play. We pick up the story after the execution of Anne Boleyn in May 1536 but it is over half way through the first act before we have the Pilgrimage of Grace (October 1536) and the interval occurs in 1537. In contrast, the second half has to rush us through the Cleves marriage, Cromwell’s rise to earl, his downfall, and execution (July 1540). If you are not familiar with this period of history, I think it would be easy to get a distorted sense of the passage of time.

The need to rush through nearly three years in the second half is, I think, responsible for the fact that some of the characters – particularly the female characters – feel underdeveloped with a reliance on traditional portrayals. Katherine Howard in particular appears, it would be difficult to exclude her, but with only a couple of scenes available for her there is is not time to do anything with her other than fall back on showing her as a silly, jewellery obsessed girl. It is also notable that all the characters have quick and amusing retorts ready for every situation. This keeps the dialogue following and provides some moments of lightness to counteract the darkness in Cromwell’s story but it does mean that quick-witter characters such as Cromwell and Christophe don’t stand out from the ground. I also find it hard to believe that everyone at Henry VIII’s court was that witty!

My final bugbear is with the appearance, yet again, of the chiffon veil, colour co-ordinated with the wearer’s dress and through which you can make out the outline of their hair do. The headdress certainly flow well when the actresses move around the stage but portraits of the period typically show women wearing black veils with their hoods and clothing historians and re-enactors will usually state that veils were made of velvet, silk, sarsanet etc – fabrics that would have been opaque and heavier. In this instance it is a shame as, otherwise, the costumes are beautiful and, some have clearly been based on portraits.

Depsite these reservations, this is still a powerful dramatisation and one that I would recommend to fans of Tudor history (and theatre fans in general!).

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