06/27/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

First Nighter: Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Brook's Valley of Astonishment in London

Although it may be that most men would prefer their first-born to be a boy, is there any man in history more intent on having a son than Henry VIII, known to intimates (such as they are) as Harry?

Hilary Mantel persuasively presents the case for his preeminence at this relentless need in Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, and then again in Bring Up the Bodies, which won the 2012 Man Booker Prize. She's the first author to win the award twice, an accomplishment that may be partially responsible for her becoming Dame Hilary as of the most recent Queen's honors list.

The popularity of the books, not to mention their Shakespearean potential, certainly made them candidates for a stage adaptation, which Mike Poulton undertook for Playful Productions that was initially presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon. It's now transferred to the Aldwych in magnificent form as two three-hour dramas.

For those who haven't read the novels and/or don't know the history, it's Henry (Nathaniel Parker) who must have a son to succeed him according to supposedly inflexible tradition and sees to getting one from his first two wives -- Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) and Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) -- but notoriously without success. It's Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), however, a blacksmith's son risen to Master Secretary and eventually to the rank of baron, who goes steadfastly, and according to his own scruples, manipulatively about assuring that Henry's will is met.

In the first of the stage histories, both of which make a convincing argument for religion being inextricable from politics, Cromwell has to rid his king of a first wife, who's only supplied him with daughter Mary, in order to wed a second who says she's "promised" him a son--Anne. Incidentally, she's the sister of Mary Boleyn (Olivia Darnley), a mistress of whom Henry has tired.

In the second of the stage histories, Cromwell mounts a campaign against Anne, who's no mean adversary, in favor of her often abused lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead), Henry's latest fancy. The master secretary does so by trapping into semi-confessions at least five men with whom Anne may or may not have dallied behind the King's broad back. When asked by son Gregory (Daniel Fraser) if the men are truly guilty of the crimes for which they've been convicted, Cromwell replies, "Who knows?"

In a way, the staged Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies resemble -- this is not meant as a pejorative -- a graphic novel, akin, say, to one drawn from any classic work. And since Mantel's books are stuffed with dialogue, Poulton has had a relatively simple job of making them stage-worthy. As scenes progress from one frame to the next in Cromwell's complicated enterprise, they're panoramic and include related plots involving most crucially Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson), who refuses the annulment Anne fights for, and Sir Thomas More (John Ramm), whose first loyalty is to the church.

To accommodate such sprawling events, set designer Christopher Oram has built three spaced walls stretching into the wings at stage left and a wall with a doorway and another opening at stage right. At the back he sometimes drops scrims. Above the otherwise empty stage onto which furniture is brought and removed is a Sol Lewitt-like grid, through which Paule Constable can throw lights that at times suggest the shadows the sun might cause through prison bars. (Perhaps only Constable and assistants have any idea how many lighting cues there are over these six hours.)

Directed with a kind of genius for constant movement by Jeremy Herrin and in Oram's sumptuous costumes, the cast, many of them doubling, is outstanding. First among equals, of course, is Miles as the shrewd, compassionate yet uncompromising Cromwell. Parker's Henry, hands on hips, is imperious, though sometimes frightened and uncertain. Leonard's Anne, who calls Cromwell "Cremuel" and does refer to her "little neck," is a calculating firebrand. Jesson's Wolsey, as well as the other three characters he takes on, is charismatic.

One question that could arise after seeing the plays without having read the novels is whether it's then necessary to do so. The answer is yes. Though in imagining Henry's court and its inhabitants' psychologies Mantel does include bountiful court talk, she also writes pointed descriptive prose often lost when the printed page is rifled.

Here's an example from Bring Up the Bodies concerning Cromwell's sense of Anne's lovers: "They come and go by night, unchallenged. They skim over the river like midges, flicker against the dark, their doublets sewn with diamonds. The moon sees them, peering from her hood of bone, and Thames water reflects them, glimmering like fish, like pearls."

Makes a reader eager for The Mirror and the Light, the concluding volume of Mantel's trilogy, not due for another couple years. Poulton must be ready to pounce. Let's hope so.


The interest Oliver Sacks takes in the human brain fascinates Peter Brook. The Valley of Astonishment is another consequence of that fascination, and, as presented at the Young Vic, currently Brook's London outlet of choice, it, too, is fascinating.

Just after it begins, small and child-like-voiced Kathryn Hunter, these days Brook's frequent leading lady of choice, introduces herself as Sammy Costas and announces she's a "real phenomenon." A reporter, she illustrates why she's a phenomenon on a visit she makes to a clinic at the suggestion of her editor after he becomes aware of her unusually impressive memory.

The doctors testing her (Marcelo Magni, Jared McNeill) diagnose her case as synesthesia. She's able to remember long series of words and numbers because she instantly associates what she's told with colors, sounds and objects.

Although she's fired from her newspaper job for being overqualified, she gets stage work based on her astonishing memory. It's a life that goes well for quite a while, until she realizes that everything she's been asked to remember has cluttered her brain. She needs to forget, but can she construct a way? That's her dilemma for the remainder of Brook's enthralling 75 minutes.

The formidable director, now 83 and working as he often does with Marie-Hélene Estienne, intersperses two other conditions with Costas's. The first involves a patient (McNeill), who associates sounds and letters of the alphabet with color. Confiding that he was an unhappy child among other children -- he made the mistake of telling friends that "A" is pink -- he found himself when he realized that if he paints the colors he sees when listening to jazz, he'd have a career.

The other patient (Magni) consulting the doctors (McNeill, Hunter this time) suffers from proprioception, which is the loss of a sense of how body parts coordinate. He's of particular enlightenment for the physicians, because he's formulated a system by which he has partially recovered: focusing his eyes on whatever body part he wants to move and having it respond. On entering the doctors' office, he's especially proud that he arrived on his own, awkwardly but successfully.

As an addition to his preceding Sacks-related pieces The Man Who and Je Suis un Phenomene, The Valley of Astonishment -- which the painter declares is the place reached where an affliction becomes an asset -- has great charm. (It's enhanced by Raphael Chambouvet at the piano and Toshi Tsuchitori on wind instruments).

Much of the charm -- in a piece that ultimately doesn't come to any conclusions about the brain's infinite capacity -- is due to the playing and includes an interlude when actor/sleight-of-hand artist Magni uses audience members to execute several card tricks. Exactly what the music-hall turn has to do with synesthesia and proprioception is obscure, but it definitely adds to the overall, uh, astonishment.