by Samuel L. Leiter
The 2014-2015 theatre season’s hot-button cultural event is the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wolf Hall, Parts One and Two, Mike Poulton’s admirable double-bill adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Broadway audiences now have the chance to see this production, which premiered in London last year, one play at a time or in a same-day marathon. In a rare coincidence, they may also view the six-part TV version on PBS, starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, which began broadcasting on April 5. I watched the first episode just after getting home from nearly six hours (separated by a two and a half-hour break) at the Winter Garden. Seeing both is illuminating.
Mantel’s door stoppers (together, over 1,000 pages) have been excoriated by major historians for their alleged distortions of characters and fact, and by Catholics for what they assert are her anti-Catholic views. Her books follow the familiar political, religious, and personal upheavals attendant upon the first three marriages—ranging from 1509 to 1536—of King Henry VIII. (The next three marriages presumably are covered in the final volume of Mantel’s planned trilogy.)
This richly fascinating material has, over the years, spawned an entire genre of novels, plays, and movies focusing on various personages, especially King Henry, Katherine of Aragon, Sir Thomas More, Sir Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and, of course, Queen Elizabeth I, the child born to Henry and Anne. In Mantel’s work, Cromwell is the principal figure.
An old rhyme goes:
King Henry the Eighth,
to six wives he was wedded.
One died, one survived,
two divorced, two beheaded.
Divorce, in fact, was not an option, the proper procedure being annulment, which is what Henry (Nathaniel Parker), claiming the crucial importance of having a male heir, seeks from Katherine (Lucy Briers). After two and a half decades, she’s borne him only a daughter, Princess Mary (Leah Brotherhead), the heiress presumptive to a throne hitherto held only by males. Henry, hoping to get rid of Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), needs the pope’s approval, England then being Catholic; when Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson), the Lord Chancellor, is unable to convince Rome to grant the king’s wish, he loses his high position, dying soon afterward. Sir Thomas More (John Ramm) becomes the new Lord Chancellor, but soon enough, More, unwilling to support the annulment (which foreshadowed the separation between England and the Catholic Church), meets his own fateful end.
Unlike Robert Bolt’s depiction of More in A Man for All Seasons as a noble martyr (he was canonized in 1935) who refuses to compromise his faith for the sake of the king’s personal wishes, Wolf Hall’s More is an unpleasant religious zealot who persecutes Protestants. Cromwell (Ben Miles), ordered to change More’s mind, is usually considered a master Machiavellian manipulator. Historian Simon Schama describes Cromwell as “a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture.” Here, though, he’s the unlikely hero, forced by circumstances to behave nastily in order to serve the king’s interests, if not his own ambitions. The ultimate realist, he has no truck with ideological preconceptions; he’s religious but anti-extremist, heretically supporting an English-language Bible and noting that the Bible never mentions monks, nuns, and popes. Beginning as the right hand man of Wolsey, he gradually ascends in wealth and power (despite his lowly origins as a blacksmith’s son), successfully handles the annulment from Katherine, arranges for Anne’s beheading, and is instrumental in setting up the king’s relationship with Jane.
The Wolf Hall plays are filled with deaths from illness, deaths by execution, religious conflict, betrayal, sexual misbehavior, class hatred (directed at Cromwell and Wolsey), interrogations, torture, ghostly visitations, and all sorts of political skullduggery. Poulton has packed as many incidents from the novels as possible into his adaptations, compressing the events into an accessible narrative that moves rapidly yet keeps you involved in what could easily be a confusing mélange of characters and events. (Two dozen actors cover forty-some odd roles.) The language is vivid, blending modern locutions with a suggestion of 15th century English; still, the anachronistic use of modern profanity seems gratuitous. And, with a few minor exceptions, you’ll have to look hard for people to admire; Cromwell qualifies only by default.
Jeremy Herrin’s staging has all the trappings associated with major British productions of Shakespeare: a looming unit set (designed by Christopher Oram) of neutral-colored walls and shapes, minimal props, and a foggy atmosphere shot through by dramatic shafts of light (Paule Constable, Part One; David Platter, Part Two); exquisite period costumes (Mr. Oram), the men’s mostly black, gray, and earth tones, the women’s more vivid; swiftly choreographed movement, often through the audience, with lightning fast scene transitions; and dense, moody, percussion-heavy music (Steven Warbeck).
Then come the players, with their big-throated voices, growling, barking, and howling when angry or demanding, lilting, lyrical, and lush when domestic or romantic. Ben Miles’s Cromwell is an almost cipher-like observer, his feelings kept in check as he controls the whirlwinds around him, venting only when absolutely necessary; a master of the dryly ironic wisecrack, he’s also as dangerous as a blade. Paul Jesson’s Wolsey is a raspy, humorous old geezer, while Parker is a commanding Henry. Briers is defiant as Katherine, although her foreign accent, like several others, is questionable, and Leonard’s Anne is sufficiently volatile to suggest one reason—in addition to trumped-up charges of adultery—for the king’s losing interest in her.
Sitting through these event-filled plays over the course of a long day can be a bit of a slog. But when it’s over, you’ll remember them for their high-quality theatrics, and their ability to make history (fictionalized as it may be) both real and relevant.
Wolf Hall, Parts One and Two
Part One: Wolf Hall
Part Two: Bring up the Bodies
Winter Garden Theatre
Through July 5
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).