A LETTER FROM LONDON: Thomas Cromwell Comes to the Stage and Miss Saigon's Helicopter Lands Again

The monthly missive from Across the Pond reflects on the stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel's novels and the revival of the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon.

Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell

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I mentioned last month that England's national obsession with our kings and queens has given rise to some spectacular theatrical events. Shakespeare knew that he'd never go broke writing about royal families, even if they weren't ours. Sometimes, as in Julius Caesar or Troilus and Cressida, he had to disguise them heavily as Romans or Greeks, but they were still recognizable to contemporary audiences who understood the references as gossip about Elizabeth I and her court.

In 2009 British writer Hilary Mantel wrote a novel called "Wolf Hall." It was long and dense, about a real person, Thomas Cromwell, whom all of us Brits learn about in history lessons at school but tend to ignore because he's so boring. He was just a bureaucrat, we school kids thought, running the dull bits of England for Henry VIII while the real fun, Henry divorcing and beheading wives, was going on elsewhere. The thing about "Wolf Hall," though, was that it was no ordinary historical potboiler. It was brilliant. Mantel somehow got inside the head and guts of one of the wiliest politicians in history and told his story in pellucid prose combined with breakneck plotting and leaps of imagination that left readers breathless. It was, no contest, the novel of the year. Or, when I say 'no contest,' in fact there was a great deal of it, as it won the Man Booker Prize, Britain's top literary award.

In 2012 she published a sequel, "Bring Up the Bodies," which is equally astounding in its combination of literary quality and readability, and she won the Man Booker Prize for that, too — the first woman ever to win it twice. She's now at work on a third part of this cycle about this man of humble origins who rose to become Henry VIII's chief minister and the architect, not only of his divorce from Katherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, but also of the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England. For eight years, between 1532 and 1540, during one of England's most turbulent periods, under one of England's most turbulent monarchs, Cromwell was, second only to the King, the most important man in the entire country. Eventually he was also executed by the King for engineering another royal marriage, that to Anne of Cleves, which was a disaster, but the backstage stories are wonderfully theatrical stuff that Mantel makes the most of in her two great books, the first up to the triumph and royal marriage of Anne Boleyn, the second, her downfall to her execution.

Now, astonishingly, these two stunning books have actually been made into dazzlingly good plays. The lessons of such ignominious theatrical catastrophes as Gone With the Wind and Fatal Attraction should, you would have thought, put any author off. Having one's well-regarded books adapted for the stage is not for the faint of heart. But Mantel, who can't put a foot wrong these days, worked happily with playwright Mike Poulton to adapt her books for the Royal Shakespeare Company without, apparently, a single qualm; the result justifies any effort they expended. Thomas Cromwell is played by a fine actor, Ben Miles, who is never off the stage and who has, with just this one role, moved directly from character actor into the leading man category with a performance to remember and cherish. One excellent mark of how successfully they have made the adaptations is the fact that you don't need to have read the novels to find the plays completely accessible. Obsessed as I've been since childhood with the Tudors, I had read both novels before I saw the plays, but over tea I compared notes with friends and fellow critics who had read neither and were congratulating themselves on now not having to read them at all. I spent a blissful Saturday seeing them both in one long bask in Tudor love affairs and politics. In the break between the plays — too late for lunch, too early for dinner, but in need of sustenance — I crossed the road from the Aldwych Theatre to the Delaunay for afternoon tea as only the English can do it — warm scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam, tiny sandwiches, sinful cakes — and then, well fortified, back into the Aldwych for another two hours of 16th-century sex and politics. Sheer heaven.

Kevin Spacey
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

They've done it again, turned the most beautiful proscenium arch theatre in London, the Old Vic, into a theatre-in-the-round. They did it once before and it doesn't work any better this time, with all of us falling over unaccustomed barriers and ticket numbering so arcane that regulars like me are pathetically wandering up and down the aisles staring myopically at seat numbers that are in the wrong place. They didn't manage to ruin Jon Robin Baitz' fine play Other Desert Cities last month but came perilously close. This month, watching poor Kevin Spacey trying to face in every direction at the same time in Clarence Darrow, David Rintels' one-man play about the great American lawyer, gave me a headache. I'm a big fan of Spacey, both as an actor and as the artistic director of the Old Vic for the past 10 years, but he was no match either for Henry Fonda in the same role or for the shortcomings of his own theatre. You shouldn't have to shout to be heard in the Old Vic.

At the Donmar there's a wonderful revival of Brian Friel's Fathers and Sons, based on Turgenev's novel of the same name. It is perfectly pitched, by actors and director Lyndsey Turner, to pick up the Russian-ness of Turgenev's sadness and the tiny irritations of family life, as well as the political sense of a world changing, a society dying, and another just about to be born.

There's always a lot of excitement when a big American movie star comes to little old London to appear on our stage. The latest is Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist, a mildly entertaining but forgettable play about a woman living in a California trailer park who buys a painting at a yard sale and with only the word of the local art teacher that it's a Jackson Pollock, invites a major New York art connoisseur to authenticate it. Turner is always watchable, her stage charisma palpable but the more she referred to herself as trailer trash, the less I believed that this gorgeous woman was anything other than the movie star she undoubtedly is. British actor Ian McDiarmid as the New York art expert overplays his character, too, until you want to tell them that real people don't behave like this which, of course, is the whole point of acting.

And, finally, the helicopter has landed. Again. Miss Saigon is back in town. It's well acted, the music is as affecting as ever, the crowd scenes are stage managed within an inch, the gun goes off when it should (in the first production that was a hit or miss affair) and the hologram of the helicopter is truly impressive. But this production lacks both the urgency and the shock value of the first productions here and on Broadway. It is slickly professional but there are directorial lapses, such as in the final scene where the director has not understood where to direct the eye. If you've never seen it, it's worth a trip but, unlike the new production of  Les Misérables on Broadway, there are no revelations here.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.) Check out Playbill.com's London listings. Seek out more of Playbill.com's international coverage, including London correspondent Mark Shenton's daily news reporting from the U.K.