‘Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies’: Theater Review

Wolf Hall - P 2014
Keith Pattison

Wolf Hall - P 2014

"Game of Thrones" in Tudor England.

Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning historical novels are masterfully compressed into a bloodthirsty six-hour court soap opera by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

LONDON - Literary sensations that became unlikely blockbuster bestsellers, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel Wolf Hall and its 2012 sequel Bring Up The Bodies were always juicy candidates for stage and screen. A fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell, the real-life London blacksmith’s son who rose to become a close advisor to King Henry VIII during his multiple marriages and turbulent split with the Roman Catholic Church, Mantel’s books re-imagined ancient stories of royal power politics through a filter of contemporary language and psychology. Highbrow yet accessible, swept along by lean present-tense prose, both novels won the Man Booker Prize and numerous other awards.

A third book in the trilogy is on the way, along with a long-form TV adaptation to be broadcast by the BBC and PBS next year. Tony and Olivier award-winner Mark Rylance will play Cromwell, with Homeland star Damian Lewis as Henry. Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company is doing brisk box-office business with these two weighty stage adaptations, which premiered in Stratford to great acclaim before making their West End debut earlier this month. Given the global success of Mantel’s books, not to mention the salacious Showtime TV series The Tudors, a U.S. transfer seems a strong possibility when this limited London run ends in September.

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Director Jeremy Herrin’s six-hour marathon of bed-hopping, back-stabbing Tudor tyranny opens like House of Cards and ends like Game of Thrones. Heavy on dialogue and low on technical trickery, the treatment is fairly straight and conservative, but full of quality craftsmanship throughout. Slightly trimmed and rewritten since Stratford, Mike Poulton’s adaptations keep the language accessible and the political context lucid enough for a general audience. They are also surprisingly funny, with a more broadly comic tone than Mantel’s books. Thanks largely to Paul Jesson’s boisterous performance as Cromwell’s former patron, the cheerfully corrupt cleric Cardinal Wolsey, Wolf Hall initially feels closer to bawdy farce than political thriller.

Best known in the U.K. for his TV comedy roles, Ben Miles gives a measured and sympathetic performance as Cromwell, though he's a little colorless for such a complex historical figure. Previous stage and screen portraits, notably in Maxwell Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days and Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, have made Cromwell a ruthless villain. Mantel and Poulton are kinder, painting this working-class outsider as a skilled social climber with a shadowy past as a mercenary, but also a forward-thinking modernizer, loyal friend and principled family man. When he commits cruel acts, he does so in the service of the Tudor throne, chiefly to maintain England’s fragile peace by helping Henry to sire a male successor.

Nathaniel Parker makes Henry a largely comic creation, childlike in his appetites and romantically naive, but generous and conscientious when his ever-changing moods allow. Lydia Leonard also gives great diva as the King’s second wife Anne Boleyn, a hot-tempered gold-digger who is smart enough to hold Henry to sexual ransom until she is made queen, and sharp-witted enough to recognize Cromwell’s latent potential as both ally and enemy. Both are essentially engaged in the same task, competing for Henry’s favors while dodging poisonous rivals in court.

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This handsome RSC production looks stark and monumental, a commendably counterintuitive approach to dramatic clichés of Tudor gluttony and pageantry. Christopher Oram’s single set is a brutalist concrete interior with an imposing crucifix design in its back wall, which assumes multiple guises from palace to prison to country garden. Oram is also responsible for the costumes, which mostly stick within a muted color scheme of velveteen blacks, earthy browns and bronze fleshtones. Paule Constable’s strikingly minimal lighting makes deep shadow and candlelight part of the canvas. The overall effect feels like watching a Rembrandt canvas brought to life. Gorgeous.

Chronicling Cromwell’s bumpy rise to power, Wolf Hall condenses 600 pages and eight years into less than three hours on stage. The compression is elegantly done, though there are inevitably some sacrifices, losing Mantel’s poetic eye for description and Cromwell’s sardonic inner monologues. Flashbacks to his abusive childhood, which provided a hint of psychological shading in the book, have been excised. The death of his wife and daughters skip by in wordless tableaux so fleeting that an inattentive audience might miss them. Largely composed of fast-paced dialogue and snappy one-liners, with no time for distracting visual spectacle, Wolf Hall could almost be a radio play.

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The second drama, Bring Up the Bodies, also opens with comic levity but soon takes a darker turn. It also feels more Shakespearean in its emotional and political depths, with Cromwell playing Iago to Henry’s Othello, mobilizing the king’s sexual jealousy in a plot against Anne and her alleged army of secret lovers. A more morally ambivalent figure in Wolf Hall, the former blacksmith’s boy begins to flex his muscles here, engineering the bloody downfall of the arrogant aristocrats who once scorned him with all the cool, methodical, ruthless precision of Michael Corleone in The Godfather II. Miles recalibrates his performance accordingly here, giving Cromwell an extra glint of steely triumphalism.

Spanning the same stage time but a shorter chronological period than Wolf Hall – roughly one year instead of eight – Bring Up the Bodies has more light and shade, more room to breathe. A near-fatal jousting accident is evoked with minimal props and sound effects, while a debauched palace orgy provides plenty of damning evidence for the ever-watchful Cromwell, even though he is a willing participant. Cardinal Wolsey also returns in ghostly form to caution and guide his former student, like some 16th century Obi-Wan Kenobi. In a stylistic break from the first play, Herrin deploys ominously long silences in two highly charged scenes, when death hangs heavy in the air.

Ending with a chilling but tastefully staged bloodbath, Bring Up The Bodies is the deeper and darker of the two plays. It highlights the sexual double standards of Henry’s court, where noblemen pimp their teenage daughters to the king in return for favors, and yet queens can be executed for treason on mere suspicion of adultery. It also contains scenes of political tyranny – show trials, forced confessions, torture and beheadings – that still resonate today, from Iran to North Korea, China to Saudi Arabia. History repeats itself, first as farce, then as tragedy. After a light first half, this masterful six-hour banquet ends with a highly satisfying main course.

Venue: Aldwych Theater, London (runs through Sept. 6)

Cast: Ben Miles, Nathaniel Parker, Lydia Leonard, Lucy Briers, Paul Jesson, John Ramm, Nicholas Day, Joey Batey, Nicholas Boulton, Leah Brotherhead, Olivia Darnley

Playwright: Mike Poulton, based on the novels by Hilary Mantel

Director: Jeremy Herrin

Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram

Lighting designer: Paule Constable

Music: Stephen Warbeck

Movement: Sian Williams

Presented by Matthew Byam Shaw, Nia Janis and Nick Salmon for Playful, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Georgia Gatti for Playful