'Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two': Theater Review

Johan Persson
Ben Miles, Nathaniel Parker and Lydia Leonard in 'Wolf Hall'
Majestic in scope if slightly reductive in execution

Hilary Mantel's best-selling historical novels of intrigue and treachery in the court of Henry VIII come to Broadway in the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic production.

What are the odds that two works of literary historical fiction, totaling north of 1,000 pages and observing the Tudor court from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a shadow figure traditionally regarded in a more sinister light, would become a popular phenomenon? Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall novels, in addition to selling some 3 million copies worldwide, have spawned a six-part BBC/PBS miniseries airing in the U.S. concurrently with the Broadway premiere of dramatist Mike Poulton's stage adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a brawny two-part epic running 5½ hours.

Already a hit in London, where it transferred to the West End after bowing to much acclaim at the RSC's home base in Stratford, the production is a mighty undertaking. It's directed by Jeremy Herrin with propulsive energy; designed with commanding stagecraft by Christopher Oram and a superb team on lighting, music and sound; and performed with authority and an abundance of sly humor by a first-rate troupe of 23.

If the play's two parts ultimately prove uneven — with the vigorous, bold-strokes storytelling of Part One giving way to uneven pacing and a nagging shortage of social and political context in Part Two — that could have something to do with the giant spoiler that even the most distracted history student knows: Anne Boleyn loses her head. As admirable as the production is, it can't compare with the exhilarating vibrancy and theatrical originality of last season's British double-bill, Twelfth Night and Richard III. But while it might fall short of the pantheon of all-time great stage events, Wolf Hall is nonetheless an impressive feat, a compelling drama played out across the canvas of a nation soaked in rain and mud and blood.

Mantel's dense, intricately detailed prose is laced with fascinating detours, among them a trip into England's occult history and a fictionalized account of the upbringing and early adulthood of the lowborn Cromwell, who became consigliere to King Henry VIII. However, the basic arc of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — the plays cover the first two books in Mantel's planned trilogy — traces the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic superpower in Europe. That severance cemented a distance from the continent that endures today, albeit in less overt ways.

Read more 'Wolf Hall': TV Review

The process begins with the desire of Henry (Nathaniel Parker) to shake off his well-connected queen of more than 20 years, Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers), in order to marry Anne (Lydia Leonard), who he hopes will bear him the male heir that Katherine has failed to produce. It ends with Anne's execution on inconclusive charges of adultery, freeing the mercurial King to marry wife No. 3, Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead).

While the fine television adaptation mirrors the thoughtful, unhurried approach of the book, shuffling chronology so that past illuminates present, Poulton by necessity streamlines the events, filleting and condensing the story into a straightforward, muscular narrative more focused on people than politics. His through-line is less concerned with Cromwell (Ben Miles) as religious reformist than with his patient mission to avenge the disgrace and death of his beloved employer Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson), whose failure to secure the annulment of Henry's marriage to Katherine costs him his rank, and eventually, his life.

Portrayed by Jesson with unapologetic worldliness and candor for a man of the cloth, as well as a blithe acknowledgment of the perks of corruption and a mistaken sense of his own invulnerability, Wolsey is a wonderful character, wise and irreverent. The consolation for his early death is that his frequent reappearances as a ghost crackle with life.

But it's perhaps a flaw of Poulton's adaptation that he omits all but the sketchiest references to Cromwell's background. The first novel opens in 1500 with the young Thomas being beaten almost to death by his blacksmith father, an abusive drunk. That prompts the lad to flee and live out his formative years as a mercenary in France, Italy and the Low Countries before reinventing himself as a money man and lawyer in London. Without that personal history, the filial love he feels for surrogate father Wolsey, and his festering hatred for Anne Boleyn and her flunkies who brought about the Cardinal's downfall, lack emotional heft. In a retelling so centered on a deeply personal grudge, the choice is perplexing.

Read more Author Hilary Mantel on the Page-to-Stage Transition of 'Wolf Hall'

But while this version might be simplified and light on psychology, it's accessible and consistently engrossing. There are also some beautiful examples of economy both in Poulton's adaptation and Herrin's staging, notably a heart-wrenching shift that jumps from Thomas bidding farewell to his wife (Olivia Darnley) before a journey and then dropping to his knees upon returning to find she has died, as mourners carry her casket through a light snowfall. The production's other breathtaking transition comes at the end, when preparations for Anne's execution segue to the eerily solemn wedding ceremony of Henry and Jane, attended by ghosts. And a final tableau that subtly foreshadows Cromwell's future fate is a stunner.

Herrin uses moments of pageantry sparingly, making them all the more effective, and the richness of Oram's costumes contrasts with the monolithic austerity of his stone slab set, more often than not shrouded in murky, other-worldly lighting that vividly conjures the 16th century. Stephen Warbeck's music is deftly employed both as underscoring and to speed the transitions, mixing period-style compositions for lute, pipes and drums with ominous ambient tones.

The characterizations are broad enough to help distinguish the many players in this complex game of treachery and power. But while the action is spiced with the occasional bit of bawdy humor and brutal violence, we're a long way from the juicy sensationalism of something like The Tudors.

On the downside, one of Cromwell's more contentious associations, with the self-flagellating moralist Thomas More (John Ramm), is reduced to villainous caricature and exaggerated eccentricity, contributing to the feeling that Poulton neglects the religious politics, as well as the backdrop of angry mobs, and heretics being exposed and burned.

Read more 'Wolf Hall'/'Bring Up the Bodies': London Theater Review

Leonard portrays Anne Boleyn as a shrewish viper with zero warmth or softness, and certainly for the duration of Part One, audiences will be rubbing their hands with glee waiting for this heartless schemer to be separated from her noggin. But as doomed Anne's world closes in on her, Leonard's panicked desolation becomes unexpectedly moving. And despite the restraint with which Herrin and Poulton depict her execution (showing the method but not the act itself), that inevitable climax creeps up with the escalating dread of a horror show.

Briers' Katherine is no less hard-edged than Anne, and her anger is magnificent as she refuses to concede defeat despite her humiliating exile. And in a delicious bit of double-casting, Brotherhead does a radical about-face from her guileless Jane in a few brief scenes as the disenfranchised Princess who would become Bloody Mary.

In the central role of this populous ensemble, Miles takes a slow-burn approach to playing Cromwell, giving a clear nod to the character's violent past while painting him as a loving family man, unable to shake the tragic loss of his wife and daughters. A scene in which he believes his remaining son (Daniel Fraser) has been hurt in a jousting match is both suspenseful and touching, even as his sympathies shift to the injured Henry. He's an eloquent roughneck, but not without compassion, and Miles' subdued performance allows us to identify with the calculating underdog even as the full scope of his cunning becomes clear. A Rovian spin doctor and supreme manipulator, he conceals his ruthlessness almost until the end, when he's coercing confessions out of Anne's alleged lovers. And if those scenes seem protracted compared to the brisk efficiency of the storytelling elsewhere, their position so far into the marathon might have something to do with it.

Finally, there's Parker's Henry, a prickly but oddly endearing narcissist, elevated by Cromwell's machinations to be one step from God, giving him more power than any English monarch before him. Like Miles' Cromwell, it's a very human portrait, wily but also at times like a petulant child who wants instant gratification and seems on the verge of a tantrum if he doesn't get it. Of course, those fits of pique can land people in the Tower, a sobering reality that closes this absorbing, uncommonly ambitious chronicle on a chilling note.

Cast: Ben Miles, Nathaniel Parker, Lydia Leonard, Joey Batey, Nicholas Boulton, Lucy Briers, Leah Brotherhead, Olivia Darnley, Nicholas Day, Mathew Foster, Daniel Fraser, Edward Harrison, Benedict Hastings, Madeleine Hyland, Paul Jesson, Robert MacPherson, Pierro Niel-Mee, Matthew Pidgeon, John Ramm, Nicholas Shaw, Joshua Silver, Giles Taylor, Jay Taylor
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Playwright: Mike Poulton, adapted from the novels 'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies,' by Hilary Mantel
Set & costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designers: Paule Constable, David Plater
Sound designer: Nick Powell
Movement: Sian Williams
Music: Stephen Warbeck

Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Matthew Byam Shaw, Nia Janis & Nick Salmon for Playful Productions, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Jam Theatricals, Ron Kastner, Kyodo Tokyo, Tulchin Bartner Productions, WLE MSG, Jane Bergere, Scott M. Delman, Rebecca Gold, Just for Laughs Theatricals, Kit Seidel, Triple Play Productions, Gabrielle Palitz, Georgia Gatti, Jessica Genick, Will Trice, The Shubert Organization

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