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Wolf Hall’s grand master

The inwardness and soul of Mark Rylance

Isabel Lloyd | January 22nd 2015

Mark Rylance has a lot to carry. There’s a weight of history on his shoulders, and also one of expectation: as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s six-part adaptation of “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, which began last night, every Hilary Mantel fan in the land will have been watching his performance with rabid attention.

For those few remaining souls who haven’t read the books, Cromwell is their heart, and their motor; the familiar history of Henry VIII’s mid-career wooing and slaughtering is told entirely through his eyes, and largely through his thoughts. The quiet interiority of the narrative is one of its greatest strengths; that, and the long game Mantel plays with revealing Cromwell’s motives. Even though you are inside his head, you’re not entirely sure what he’s up to, a trick that keeps you gripped to the final page.

It’s that interiority that gave the Royal Shakespeare Company such difficulties with its plodding stage adaptation in 2013. The script simply recited the events, with Cromwell taking part in them—all the subtle joys of Mantel’s telling were lost to the extent that, to quote Alan Bennett, history became “just one fucking thing after another”. Television is a more fluid medium, so hopes were high that Peter Straughan’s BBC script would come closer to capturing the spirit of the original. Judging from last night’s episode, those hopes have been justified.

The script echoes Mantel’s luxurious pace, her edging forwards, backwards and sideways through events, her close attention to the minutiae of apparently mundane conversation. There’s no interior monologue, but the director, Peter Kosminsky, keeps his camera close to Cromwell, peering over his shoulder as he walks through a series of subdued Tudor interiors, looking sidelong at his tears as he grieves for his dying children; letting it linger on him as he takes in the implications of his first direct brush with Damian Lewis’s gilded raptor of a king. As Cromwell breathes out a tiny sigh of relief, you breathe with him.

Such a connection with the audience is a vital one. The RSC’s Cromwell, Ben Miles, failed to ever be more than just another part in the play; his characterisation was hopelessly underpowered, largely confined to taking his hat off, ruffling his hair, then putting his hat back on again. This wasn’t acting, it was just standing.

Mark Rylance’s Cromwell does a lot of standing, but there’s no “just” about it. He may not have many lines—it’s usually his interlocutors, whether Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn or the Duke of Norfolk, who are doing all the talking—but there are whole scripts going on behind his eyes. He’s not a burly man, and doesn’t have the thuggish, Tony Soprano weight of Holbein’s man-in-black portrait, but he has caught the expression the painter saw—an inwardness, a kind of looking beyond the frame, that comes with constantly having to analyse your opponent and ready yourself for the next move in the game. It’s a look you see in the eyes of master chess players and champion boxers.

Rylance also handles with great elegance the apparent contradiction of Cromwell’s deep soulfulness—his love for his family and his first master, Wolsey—and his utterly pragmatic ability to do whatever is necessary to survive. Watching him is to see Machiavelli’s “The Prince” in action: he is motivated by an understanding of the world as it really is, but that doesn’t stop him caring for it. When one character bemoans the English tendency to destroy and vilify their greatest leaders, he says, “It’s not the English. It’s just people.” As Rylance delivered the line—matter of factly, with resignation, with hard-won, lightly worn understanding—Mantel’s Cromwell leapt off the page. I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan applauding.

Wolf Hall continues on BBC2, Wednesdays at 9pm

Watch Hilary Mantel on how she found Cromwell's character 

Read more Mantel's memoir about her strange relationship with awards

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