The Mirror and the Light on stage – what the critics are saying

Adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s final book of trilogy pulls off ‘extraordinary achievement’ in ‘making history live’

Scene from The Mirror and the Light
Ben Miles reprises his role as Cromwell and also co-wrote the play
(Image credit: Royal Shakespeare Company)

Owing to the enormous success of the RSC’s adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, expectations have been high for the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, said David Benedict in Variety. Have they been met? “Almost.” Ben Miles reprises his role as Henry VIII’s right-hand man Thomas Cromwell, while Nathaniel Parker plays the king. Both actors are first-rate, as is Jeremy Herrin’s meticulous direction.

The first two novels were adapted for the stage by playwright Mike Poulton. This time, Mantel has taken the helm, in collaboration with Miles. They’ve done a creditable job, “editing everything down to focus on forward momentum” – and the production as a whole pulls off an “extraordinary achievement” in “making history live”. But they had an awful lot to cram in and, as a result, few characters really have time to “form a relationship with the audience”.

The novel kicks off with the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution, said Andrzej Lukowski in Time Out. But the play opens with Cromwell facing a life-and-death interrogation in the Tower of London, before spooling back. This proves a “smart theatrical move”: it makes the story more “self-contained and accessible”, and gets the issue of (spoiler alert!) Cromwell’s demise out of the way early on.

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What results is “a fast, often very funny political thriller”, with “staccato, frequently hilarious dialogue”. It is undoubtedly compressed, but this helps to create the “sense of a kingdom galloping breathlessly out of control”.

On the contrary, it seemed to me that a great novel had been reduced to a rather “mechanical precis”, said Clive Davis in The Times. Even the final scene has a “perfunctory quality”.

The play does not lack wit or grace, but the “inevitability” of the plot sucks the life out of it, said Claire Armitstead in The Guardian, and reduces the Tudor court to a “parade of stuffed doublets”. There are seven on stage within minutes of the curtain going up, and it “took most of the first half to work out which was which”.

Gielgud Theatre, London W1 (0844-482 5151). Until 23 January 2022

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