Like the books, they put Putney blacksmith’s son Thomas Cromwell centre stage, charting his rise from Cardinal Wolsey’s right hand man to Henry VIII’s most powerful minister as he shrewdly survives the former’s downfall.
Each part can stand alone, though seeing them both gives added depth. The first focusses on the political machinations and religious upheaval involved in divesting Henry of his first wife of 18 years (Lucy Briers’ resolute Katherine of Aragon) who had failed to give him a son, the second on the fall from grace of her successor Anne Boleyn who was not only equally unsuccessful in providing him with a male heir but, fatally, rumoured to be scandalously unfaithful as well.
With its plethora of Thomas’s – Boleyn, Cranmer and More as well as Wolsey and Cromwell – and a cast which takes on multiple roles, one really needs to concentrate. But Jeremy Herrin’s fluid production manages to retain a light touch, overshadowed by a constant sense of mortality (whether stemming from the “sweating sickness” which took Cromwell’s wife and daughters or from the whim of a monarch demanding his own way even when his conscience pricks).
Nathaniel Parker captures the changeable, wilful essence of a pampered, self-indulgent king, desperate for a son to succeed him, whilst Paul Jesson brings a wry humour to the role of the equally hedonistic Wolsey and Lydia Leonard makes an ambitiously determined Anne.
And holding it all together is Ben Miles’ excellent Cromwell (sharp-witted, complex, intelligent, a loyal fixer with a dubious past and a survivor’s gift for diplomacy) who is devoted to the service of cardinal, king, country – and, of course, himself.
When: Until September 6
Where: Aldwych Theatre, 49 Aldwych, London, WC2B 4DF
Tickets cost £10 – £59 (per play), premium seats are also available. To book, click here