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Wolf Hall premiere brings Thomas Wolsey back to Ipswich

PUBLISHED: 07:21 17 March 2018

(l-r) Henry VIII (Michael Cook), Thomas Cromwell (Steve Taplin), Anne Boleyn (Charlotte Curtis) in Gallery Players' production of Wolf Hall. Picture: STEVE WOOLDRIDGE

(l-r) Henry VIII (Michael Cook), Thomas Cromwell (Steve Taplin), Anne Boleyn (Charlotte Curtis) in Gallery Players' production of Wolf Hall. Picture: STEVE WOOLDRIDGE

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Wolf Hall, the story of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, is one of great historical dramas of recent years. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke talks to director James Hayward about the Gallery Players regional premiere and how they have brought Wolsey back home

Thomas Cromwell (Steve Taplin), Henry VIII's arch manipulator in Wolf Hall. Picture: STEVE WOOLDRIDGEThomas Cromwell (Steve Taplin), Henry VIII's arch manipulator in Wolf Hall. Picture: STEVE WOOLDRIDGE

For amateur theatre director and keen historian James Hayward, staging the regional premiere of the RSC’s version of Wolf Hall is akin to bringing our Tudor legacy back to Ipswich. Although, the play is ostensibly about Thomas Cromwell’s relationship with Henry VIII, it also examine Cromwell’s life as Cardinal Wolsey’s favoured protégé.

Thomas Wolsey, son of an Ipswich butcher, was Henry’s most trusted advisor and the most powerful man in England after the King, and following his fall from grace, Cromwell, the sharp-eyed, intelligent, master manipulator stepped into his former master’s shoes as Henry’s right-hand man while remaining loyal to Wolsey.

For James, it remains a fascinating period in history and Hilary Mantel’s best-selling novel and the subsequent plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC TV series, with Mark Rylance, have catapulted this captivating period of British history back into the public consciousness.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Born Ipswich 1471; The Gallery Players production of Wolf Hall returns Ipswich's greatest son to his home town.  PICTURE EADT LIBRARY;Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Born Ipswich 1471; The Gallery Players production of Wolf Hall returns Ipswich's greatest son to his home town. PICTURE EADT LIBRARY;

James saw the RSC version on stage and believes that the politics, the intrigue and the human relationships means that audiences will find themselves swept up into a world which feels incredibly modern and very relevant.

“This isn’t some dry history play, this a compelling political drama that feels exactly like an alternate version of The West Wing or House of Cards. It will hook you and draw you in.”

He says that while many people found the book rather challenging – “It’s not an easy read and I have to admit that I had to start again but it is a brilliant piece of literature” – the play has substance and allows the audience to see the relationships which triggered such a momentous change in British history.

Anne Boleyn (Charlotte Curtis). Picture: STEVE WOOLDRIDGEAnne Boleyn (Charlotte Curtis). Picture: STEVE WOOLDRIDGE

Talking to James it is easy to see his enthusiasm bubbling to the surface. “The appeal to me was that I love history and this is my period: Henry VIII and the Tudors and being a boy from Ipswich, I love any new information about Thomas Wolsey.

“So when I heard that the RSC were doing it we rushed to see it, loved it, and I sat there rejoicing that in the very first scene Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell are there on stage talking about Ipswich and I thought then, that this would be a fantastic show to do. I have got to bring this home in some way.

I pestered the rights holders for sometime and eventually it got released for amateur performance and, as far as I am aware, we are staging the regional amateur premiere.”

He explains that although the RSC performed two plays as a double bill, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, one play for each of the books, The Gallery Players will be staging only the first play.

“The play starts with Cromwell as Wolsey’s protégé and as Wolsey falls from favour Cromwell manages to get himself into the service of the King and as a master manipulator manages to sort out the King’s great matter which was his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

“All of that is in Wolf Hall while the second play largely deals with the downfall of Anne Boleyn and we all know how that ends.”

James is pleased that Thomas Wolsey plays such an important role in the first play and its an opportunity to reintroduce the great man to local audiences. “I read him as Ipswich’s Greatest Son. He is a wonderful advert for social mobility. He was the son of a butcher who became the King’s greatest advisor. I mentioned this at a study day I went to. I am getting so into this that I am now attending Thomas Wolsey study days and I got ever-so slightly told off for suggesting that Wolsey came from humble origins. A very eminent professor told me: ‘I think that this business about humble origins has been rather over done.’ But, I then looked into it and his father was indeed a butcher and ran a slaughterhouse. He was forever being fined for letting his pigs wander in the street and selling mouldy half-penny pies.

“His father wasn’t a burgess of Ipswich, he wasn’t a member of a guild, he had to pay fines in order to practice his trade. He wasn’t a well-to-do man but his uncle was and it was his uncle we believe who sponsored Thomas, who was clearly a bright boy, to go to Oxford to study theology.

“Wolsey smashed right through the social strata to become, as he was known at the time the Alta Rex, the other king, the most powerful man in England after Henry VIII. In addition to that he was also the Papal Legate, so he had enormous power, he was widely respected all through Europe, and Thomas Cromwell, who was Wolsey’s protégé, reflected Wolsey’s rise to power because he too was from humble origins. His father was a publican and blacksmith in Putney.

“At some point Cromwell went abroad to Italy and came back being able to speak French, Italian, Latin, he could translate poetry, he was a lawyer, he could draft a contract, he could fix your roof, he was a jack of all trades and, it would appear, a master of them all.

“But, along the way, you make enemies and both Wolsey and Cromwell make enemies of the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk, both very powerful men with very long memories.”

James says that the plays canvas is broad and you get a real sense of the time and place. Tudor England comes alive in Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel.

“What we have concentrated on is making the production look rich – making the setting look as if it is fit for a King. The costumes are fabulous and will give the production a lot of atmosphere. The audience should feel as if they are at court with Henry, Wolsey and Cromwell. The language is very contemporary, it’s not archaic at all and should put the audience in the heart of the action. We staging the production in traverse, with the audience on each side so they can see one another and hopefully it will give the feel of people crowding into King Henry’s court and they are watching this highly personal drama unfold.

“You get to see the politics and the wheeler dealing. It’s like a Tudor version of the West Wing really, or an alternate version of The House of Cards. I hope the audience will feel that they are actually in the room watching history take shape. They will get to see Wolsey discussing policy with Cromwell and Anne Boleyn exhibiting her wild temper on one of her hapless ladies in waiting.

“Similarly when Henry and Anne secretly get married, the audience should feel that they are guests at the wedding and this again helps breaks down that infamous fourth wall.”

He adds that the ultimate reward will be for audiences to see Thomas Cromwell portrayed as a man, more of a three dimensional character, rather the cardboard cut-out villain that popular history has painted him.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, adapted by Mike Poulton, is staged by The Gallery Players at Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich from March 21-30.

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