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Wolf Hall: Parts One and Two

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 9, 2015

The Royal Shakespeare Company Production of Wolf Hall - Part One: Wolf Hall and Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Adapted by Mike Poulton. Directed by Jeremey Herrin. Set and costumes designed by Christopher Oram. Lighting desig Part 1 by Paule Constable. Lighting design Part 2 by David Plater. Music by Stephen Warbeck. Sound design by Nick Powell. Movement bt Siân Williams. Cast: Joey Batey, Nicholas Boulton, Lucy Briers, Leah Brotherhead, Olivia Darnley, Nicholas Day, Mathew Foster, Daniel Fraser, Edward Harrison, Benedict Hastings, Madeleine Hyland, Paul Jesson, Lydia Leonard, Robert Macpherson, Ben Milesl Pierro Niel-Mee, Nathaniel Parker, Matthew Pidgeon, John Ramm, Nicholas Shaw, Joshua Silver, Giles Taylor, Jay Taylor.
Theatre: Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway between West 50th and 51st Streets
Audience : Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Limited engagement through July 5
Please see Telecharge for performance schedule.
Tickets: Telecharge

Ben Miles
Photo by Johan Persson

No offense to the current troupe—Elizabeth, Charles, William, Kate, and so on—but the British monarchy just ain't what it used to be. Today's scandals, divorces and remarryings and hard partying from spares apparent, are perfectly fine for tabloid fodder on both sides of the Atlantic, but they stop well short of ripping apart whole countries, or even whole religions. Perhaps no one today seriously wishes for a return to a time when that was possible, but watching the new two-part popcorn history at the Winter Garden, Wolf Hall, might force you to reconsider for a minute or two.

After all, it's tough to top Henry VIII's headline-topping (and head-dropping) verve. His battle with the Catholic Church! His forming his own church! All those wives! His legendary corpulence! Henry (who reigned from 1509 to 1547) isn't technically the central figure of either Hilary Mantel's lip-smacking page-turners, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, or these plays, which Mike Poulton has adapted from them—that honor belongs to His Majesty's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. But Henry, ahem, looms large throughout as a hulking symbol of where unchecked, God-ordained power can lead when reinterpreted by us passionate, messy humans.

Most of us already know the answer: nothing good. But Poulton and his director, Jeremy Herrin, who united for this Royal Shakespeare Company production (which premiered in 2013), wring gallon after gallon of invigorating juice from even this most familiar of stories as Cromwell (Ben Miles) must constantly pick up, rearrange, and knock down the pieces of his liege's complicated personal life. If his own strength and posterity are assured along the way, so be it. And casualties, if not necessarily desired, are at least to be expected.

To some extent, everyone pays a price because the subterfuge and politicking run so deep. Henry (Nathaniel Parker) wants a son that neither his wife, Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers), nor his present mistress, Mary Boleyn (Olivia Darnley), can provide. So he sets his sights on Mary's sister, Anne (Lydia Leonard), but—well, there is the bother of that whole marriage thing, isn't there? And when Pope Clement VII won't grant him a divorce, he doesn't have any choice but to break away with Catholicism and found the Church of England, with himself at its head, does he?

Nathaniel Parker
Photo by Johan Persson

This, of course, is only the first step among many—Anne likewise turns out to be not entirely suitable, and her replacement, Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead), is already waiting in the wings—but each represents an obstacle bigger than Henry can overcome himself. He thus relies on Cromwell to do his dirty work, do his deals, and defy all conventional logic in order to make the unthinkable possible. And Cromwell, scheming, imaginative, and well connected, is hardly poised to let down Henry, even if it means running afoul of half the country in order to do it. (Which, for all intents and purposes, it does.)

His quest spans four acts and nearly six hours of playing time (performances alternate, and you can see both parts on either weekend day), and counts major and minor names from both the Court and his personal life. Poulton artfully weaves together the larger and more intimate elements, until they're essentially inseparable; all of England becomes Cromwell's plaything or, if you prefer, his accomplice.

The deepest of the many shivers of excitement come from seeing the tools Cromwell uses to execute his plans, and the people and ideals he sacrifices along the way. Watching what happens to Sir Thomas More, a conscientious objector to Henry's remarrying game, as he's increasingly targeted and isolated, especially given his parallel track with Cromwell early on, is among the more sobering moments (and well on par with the play about More, A Man for All Seasons). And there's more than a twist of demented enjoyment to be found in observing how Cromwell devises one legalistic tangle to get Anne into Henry's bed, and then must undo those same threads to get her out of it again later.

It does all get a bit soap-opera-y, though that's not entirely unavoidable (and it doesn't go as far down that road as other treatments of the story, such as the 2007 Showtime series, The Tudors). The plays admittedly lack the psychological depth and nuance of Mantel's novels, which explored Cromwell's inventive treachery from the inside out. And they don't have quite the declamatory, epic feeling that gives Shakespeare's better history outings their own inimitable sense of timelessness, or that have categorized other plays of this nature, such as Tom Stoppard's landmark (and, I'd argue, overall stronger) The Coast of Utopia.

Lydia Leonard
Photo by Johan Persson

Wolf Hall—either one, or both—is unquestionably a contemporary, high-level spin on a classic formula, a kind of nonmusical Les Misérables that distills, compresses, and occasionally corrupts the originals to create something new, and something populist, that compels in its own way. Luckily, that goal is more than achieved. Poulton might have stripped away most of the tale's velvet and filigree, but he's removed none of its lurid grandeur or most acidic personalities, so the original's vividness and scope remain, however changed they may be, fully intact.

Working on a sparse, cathedral-like set, and with opulent costumes (both were designed by Christopher Oram; Paule Constable crafted the sunny lights for Part One and David Plater the more shadow-embracing kind for Part Two, and the period-appropriate music is by Stephen Warbeck), Herrin captures both the free-spiraling swirl of the titled class and the moments of terrifying stillness that punctuate their more deviousness actions. Things move at a zippy sprint throughout, with scenes flowing continuously and cleverly into one another to highlight each of the countless contrasts, and despite the 23-person cast playing dozens of characters, the whos, whys, and hows of the various personages never become confusing.

As Cromwell, Miles is conflicted but laser-focused, and simultaneously nasty and obsequious. He lives up to all our antihero expectations, while also investing the barely sympathetic man with enough heart to, despite all his monstrosity, keep us in his corner. It's a bravura turn, notable for how understated it is: sweeping, yes, but realistically so, reinforcing Cromwell's disposition of a man of unlimited ambition who nonetheless knows where the boundaries around him lie.

Parker, giving a more traditional if restrained reading, shows Henry as both a sensible ruler and one who's absolutely aware of the influence he wields, just the qualities needed for him to be a solid, reflective foil for Henry. Leonard's Anne is deliciously ambitious, and every bit the equal of the men who control her fate. Though occasionally playing a bit broad, Brotherhead nonetheless makes Jane a boisterous focal point for Henry's lusts and Cromwell's behavior. The rest of the performers are first-rate as well, particularly Paul Jesson as Cardinal Wolsey, one of Henry's earliest and highest-profile victims.

Wolsey doesn't vanish entirely, even after he's gone. In the great theatrical tradition, he returns long after his exit to haunt Cromwell's memories and keep him forever cognizant of what he does, and the impact it has on those surrounding him. It may be a hoary—sorry, time-honored—trick, but it works, like practically everything else here, to translate implicit words into explicitly affecting moments that are just as riveting on the stage as Mantel's writing was on the page.

Speaking of which, it's worth noting that Mantel is at work on the third and final book in her trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, which is scheduled for release later this year. Don't be surprised, then, if at some point soon Poulton, Herrin, Miles, and company return to Broadway to unite Wolf Hall Parts One and Two with a fresh Part Three that extends everything here to its logical conclusion. If the wonderful offerings we have now are any indication of what the future might hold, that would be an achievement well worth losing your head over.

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