When the action of The Mirror and the Light opens Thomas Cromwell is already a prisoner in the Tower of London. Putting a brave face on a situation into which he himself has cast many others, he talks up his plans for when he is released. Even as he does this, however, messengers bring word of his house being ransacked by the King’s agents, seeking to lay hands either on the wealth that he has accumulated or the evidence that will damn him. Cromwell knows how the machinery of the Tudor police-state works, and how well it works. Informed that Henry has sent money for his board and lodging within the Tower his instant response is to ask ‘for how long?’ His gaoler declines to answer that question directly.
The process by which a man who enjoyed the favour of Henry VIII could fall so swiftly dominates the concluding novel in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Cromwell’s life. Now, like its earlier instalments, The Mirror and the Light has been adapted for the stage, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2014 versions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies to complete in the theatre what Mantel has concluded in print. Many of the same cast and creative team are involved, and in due time this London production, which runs at the Gielgud Theatre until January 2022, will surely follow its previous parts to Broadway.
A key difference here, though, is that Ben Miles, whose performance as Cromwell was so integral to those earlier productions, is now credited alongside Mantel with adapting the work for the stage. The two have collaborated to great effect, and Cromwell’s complex interior world is captured here with ever greater nuance. The close third-person narration of Mantel’s novels will always be hard to convey to the theatre audience, but we are grateful for any new aperture into the mind of the man whose rise through the Tudor system provided the first two parts of the trilogy with their narrative drive. In this case, that need is arguably more pronounced because this work is both a record and an analysis of how the man who forged so much of Henry’s state could not keep himself out of its punitive reach.
At the start of the play the bare, concrete-like walls of the set are lit to suggest the Tower’s damp darkness, and as the audience takes its seats the drip of water, the sliding of bolts in locks, and the cries of prisoners and gaolers can be heard. A cage, built from iron boxes, is suspended over the stage as though to suggest the gates of the Tower, or the cells within. Although it is raised or lowered as the play progresses it is always visible: a reminder of the state’s ultimate fate for those who, inevitably, fail to keep pace with its shifting definition of service or loyalty.
Cromwell’s rise within Henry’s court – achieved not via family connections or inherited wealth, but through pragmatism and personal amorality – alienated many of those through whose ranks he progressed. The brewer’s son from Putney knew how to anticipate and react to the moods of the capricious monarch to the point at which he was indispensable when unpleasant tasks had to be done. And there were plenty of those: the wrangling over the ‘Great Matter’ of Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, the elevation of Anne Boleyn, the split with Rome, the swallowing of the Church’s assets into the royal coffers and, beset as it would always be by enemies at home and abroad, the forging of a new English state.
The cost of this was always going to be high, and the collateral damage is still visible when the events of this play begin. Even as the audience is taken back to the happier times of Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour hopes for the future are tempered by the past. The birth of the long-awaited Edward provides Henry with a male heir, but this moment of joy is immediately counterbalanced by Jane’s death. Henry (acted, as in the earlier plays, by Nathanial Parker), who had seemed rejuvenated by his third marriage, appears from here on as volatile and grief-stricken, hobbling around the stage on his wounded and septic leg while frightened courtiers try to second-guess his moods and desires.
Tragically, it is at this point that Cromwell’s deft touch deserts him. Brokering Henry’s marriage to Anna of Cleves is a politicly sound way of giving England a continental ally amongst the German states, but the marriage itself is a disaster, with the King opining that Hans Holbein’s portrait of Anna’s was preferable to the woman herself. The audience knows as soon as the marriage starts to founder that Cromwell’s role in it is a misstep that his enemies will not fail to use to their advantage. Looking up, the cage seems to be lower above the stage than it was in happier times.
Whereas Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies showed Cromwell’s rise as a victory over the country’s aristocratic order, The Mirror and the Light reminds us that although the old families of England seemed to be in retreat they were never wholly defeated by the brewer’s son. Men like the Duke of Norfolk, who looked like remnants of the past when Anne Boleyn’s fall disgraced their old networks of power and patronage, revive in stature as Henry loses patience with some of the new men around him. When religious uprisings threaten the stability of the realm the old dukes and earls can call up men from their estates, putting an army in the field at short notice to restore order. Cromwell has money enough to buy arms and hire men, but is seen to be lacking that older feudal bond between the monarch and their nobility. Indeed, he accepts such titles as Henry bestows on him precisely because they off-set his parvenu’s status, for the same reason that he brokers his son Gregory’s marriage to Elizabeth Seymour. Indeed, when Cromwell does stockpile weaponry in anticipation of another uprising it only leaves him open to charges of plotting against the King, for why else would a man of his background keep arms at his home and mercenaries on retainer?
The world of Mantel’s novels is one in which the living and dead move through a shared space, and here we see both Cromwell’s father Walter and his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, reappearing as if to remind him of his earlier self, and the road he has travelled. Wolsey’s fall from power torments Cromwell, always wondering whether he had been loyal enough to his former master, whose fate seems increasingly to anticipate his own. Dispatched to the Tower, Cromwell finds himself occupying the same rooms used by Thomas More before his execution, and sure enough More’s ghost is briefly visible, like a reminder of the human cost of Cromwell’s pragmatism. ‘You never saw me coming,’ Cromwell thinks at the end of Wolf Hall as he muses on how he has brought about More’s downfall. Now, the two meet again: the one already dead, and the other about to be. Those men, like Richard Riche, who have themselves risen, Cromwell-like, are equally quick to distance themselves from him when his fortunes collapse, as he did with Wolsey when the crisis came. Their pragmatism is a final, terrible compliment to the example he has set.
The core achievement of Mantel’s novels, the first two of which won the Booker Prize for fiction, was their making the men and women of Tudor portraits come alive with a range of all too human vices and virtues, and in Cromwell’s fate we discern an almost Shakespearian lesson in the cold realities of power. The end of the play is not, of course, the end of Henry’s martial merry-go-round, and the marriage to Katherine Howard (news of which reaches Cromwell as he is en route to his death) will prove no happier or politically expedient than the match it superseded. Henry’s England will remain small and vulnerable, for all its puffed-up showmanship, destined for decades of domestic instability and in-fighting once his overbearing presence no longer dominates its political life. For his part, Cromwell, as this play reminds us, was a highly skilled functionary who got caught in the gears of the machinery he designed and operated for so long. “Who will your majesty trust hereafter,” wrote Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to Henry, trying to come to his friend’s defence at the last, “if you cannot trust Cromwell?” The answer, as history shows, was ultimately ‘no one’. Although he ends up in the cage himself, one still suspects that Cromwell would have had it no other way.