These are near-perfect adaptations. That's to say, imperfect transcriptions. Mike Poulton's stage versions of Hilary Mantel's mighty Tudor novels do not reproduce every episode or hug every bit of her prose. Nor should they. To demand complete fidelity from someone trying to make a piece of theatre from a work of fiction would be like requiring Shakespeare to stick to historical documents. Or insisting that Henry VIII cleave to only one woman.
These plays, made in collaboration with the author, go to the heart of Mantel's fictions and give them a different life. They trace with exemplary clarity the English Reformation and the sexual shenanigans of Henry VIII. They cover sweating sickness, courtly betrayal, censorship, the secret life of Thomas Wyatt, pragmatic brother-and-sister incest, totalitarianism.
They also rearrange the pantheon of heroes and villains. This has a particular force in the theatre, where Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons long held sway. For Bolt, Thomas More, refusing to accede to the king's break with the Catholic church, was the conscience-struck hero and Thomas Cromwell a power-hungry skulker. For Mantel, and Poulton, Cromwell is the pivot of action that will help bring about a new England. He is seen without sentimentality as an effective, which is also to say ruthless, reformer. His clear-sightedness, dexterity and exceptional accomplishments are deemed as worthy of celebration as spiritual acrobatics or aristocratic gracefulness. Here is a vindication of the rights of the self-made man.
Ben Miles's performance as Cromwell is crucial and it is magnificent. He is not, as he is in the novels, seen as a bashed-up child, the son of a Putney blacksmith. Yet he suggests elements of the background at which the courtiers sneer. At his first entrance, he is chewing as he speaks; as his authority consolidates, his accent subtly poshes itself up. Concentrated, vigilant, withdrawn, he barely gestures, and then suddenly swoops, occasionally into near violence; even when hovering on the outskirts of the action he seems to focus it. He is a still, unswerving force. He does not so much project power as absorb it.
It is extraordinary how much intricacy – all those tiny shifts on a huge canvas – has been maintained. The chronology has been ironed out, so that there are no multiple flashbacks. This means some loss in introspective dreaminess – the novels are about memory as well as history – but a gain in drive. The action races but, despite plenty of rambunctiousness, never merely romps. Scents and savours cannot be reproduced, but there is an extraordinary range and texture of sensory experience.
Christopher Oram's glorious design projects luxuriance and a protest against lavishness. Here is Catholic high colour and Protestant plainness: an austere set and rich costumes. The huge cross that is from time to time illuminated at the back of the stage is made of bricks, as if it were not only a Christian symbol but a structural necessity. A line of low flames gives a hint of hell as well as of domestic warmth.
Meanwhile, one of the least appealing eras for menswear is captured in meticulous Holbeinian detail: however much he swaggers, Nathaniel Parker's overblown but not overdone Henry looks like a gigantic toddler in puffed sleeves and stiff rompers. The women's garb – bodices usually bursting and faces sometimes veiled – offers a tacit but eloquent commentary on their lives.
Leah Brotherhead makes Jane Seymour an eldritch waif, high-pitched and wheedling. By the time her husband rejects her, Lucy Briers's Katherine of Aragon is already turning into a stone effigy – yellow in the face, stiff in the joints, unchangeable. Lydia Leonard's Anne Boleyn – known as "flat chest" to distinguish her from "the easy armful" that is her winking sister – is whip-sharp and lethal.
This is an exceptionally strong cast, though it would be better with less Allo, Allo! from the French. Paul Jesson's fruity Cardinal Wolsey – scampering juicily along in his scarlet robes – is fallible, sensual, conceited and, against the odds, engaging. Joshua James, a most supple and surprising young actor, provides a beautifully contained and generous performance as Cromwell's clerk and surrogate son. He looks at times quite uncannily like a Holbein merchant, and I think this is not mere luck but his skill.
Jeremy Herrin puts himself in the front rank of directors with a production that suggests a long reach without overcrowding or bustle. Paule Constable's lighting creates a court of large brightness, pockets of intimacy, outer regions of menacing shadow and a recurring miasmic greyness through which funerals process and the dead occasionally wander. The staging is wonderfully swift and economical. River sequences are summoned up by a faint wash of sound, a dimming light and the grouping of actors as if on a barge. The death of Cromwell's wife is conveyed in a terrible silence, as she quietly walks away from him. One scene moves seamlessly into the next, so that the past is continually carried into the present.
Hilary Mantel had a Catholic upbringing, a legal training that enhanced her gift for forensic argument, and years of making her own way without a male courtier's sense of entitlement. No wonder that she should triumph with Thomas Cromwell as a subject. It is a marvel that Herrin and Poulton should embody this so exactly and vivaciously on stage.
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