Here’s the thing: If you want to savor an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels about boy-crazy King Henry VIII, you can go the leisurely route via public television, or you can binge, Netflix -style, on, of all places, Broadway. One is free and spread across weekly installments. The other is, well, not free, but can be enjoyed over a full-immerge in a single day, or separately on two occasions at the Winter Garden Theatre. Of course, you can also read the story, comprising two books, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Who would have imagined the 16th Century could produce stories to rival any reality TV series?
Whichever delivery mechanism you choose, you’ll be smitten with Thomas Cromwell, one of Britain’s more shadowy characters, a smithy’s son risen to the heights of power in the Tudor court and here given the spotlight in an account reeking of political intrigue, dastardly doings, sexual improprieties and monarchical double-dealings, all set against the tumult of the Reformation. It’s as delicious as any historical fiction by Gore Vidal, and as clever as Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s freshman play that reframed Hamlet through the lens of two minor characters.
Cromwell was hardly a minor character, but he has been overshadowed in the popular culture by Henry, who married and disposed of queens like so much tissue in his determination to sire a male heir, and by the King’s chief advisor, Sir Thomas More, immortalized in A Man For All Seasons, whom the more ethically flexible Cromwell eventually would succeed. Wolf Hall, Parts I and II, which comes to Broadway via the Royal Shakespeare Company (along with the novels and TV series) ingeniously redresses that situation, delivering a portrait of a humble man whose brain power, personal ambition and taste for revenge take him — and, happily, us — on a wild ride from the boonies of Putney to the boudoirs of the monarchical court.
Three things center and heighten the RSC adaptation. The first is Mike Poulton’s economical and purposefully selective script, which condenses a thousand pages of dense, present-tense exposition into a coherent narrative that perfectly balances the central tale and the manipulations and shenanigans that keep us hungry for the next turn of plot. Second is the resplendent, swiftly-paced production under director Jeremy Herrin, unfolding on Christopher Oram’s monochrome blank-slate set, with his scarlet velvet clothes and polished armor providing the suggestions of opulence that are all that’s necessary, especially as filtered through the precise, atmospherically charged lighting by Paule Constable (Part I) and David Plater (Part II).
Most of all, there is the casting, anchored by Ben Miles as Cromwell. Miles, who bears a slight resemblance to Mark Rylance (Cromwell in the TV series), reminded me more of the late great actor John Wood, another mainstay of the British stage and master of the dubious wink, the conspiratorial gesture, the subtle sotto voce that offers advice while concealing self-advancement.
We first meet Cromwell when he is the devoted adviser to the corrupt Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson, brilliant) soft from enjoying the full expanse of his power. But he’s flummoxed by Henry’s insistence that he secure papal approval of his demand for annulment of his long marriage to Katherine Of Aragon, the Spanish queen who has failed in male-child department (Lucy Briers is spectacularly undone by the machinations to disappear the haughty queen). Despite Wolsey’s doomed mission, Henry (Nathaniel Parker, who provides a steadily entrancing counterweight to Miles) takes note of Cromwell, who reveals both a cunning intellect and a gift for speaking necessary wisdom without offending his patron. Henry can be a buffoon, with his oversize codpiece bobbing in and out of his royal skirts, and childlike in his demands while always fiercely secure in his power.
Over the course of those six hours, Cromwell will outsmart his chief rival More (whose character is taken down a notch in both the writing and in John Ramm’s terrific performance), observing with barely-hidden rue, “What he was brought up to believe, he believes still,” as More holds steadfastly to his religious conviction. In a shade too-fast Part II transformation, Cromwell morphs from practiced survivor to compelling avenger of Wolsey’s humiliation and demise.
As is not uncommon with RSC productions, every character is cast perfectly and the ensemble as a whole simply dazzles. Lydia Leonard plays Anne Boleyn, wife number two, with brutal authority, just as Leah Brotherhead beautifully underplays Jane Seymour. Most of these names will be unknown to American audiences, except for those lucky enough to take part in this limited-run marathon.
But marathon it is, a tough sell in these times of instant gratification and multiple demands on our time. Wolf Hall has been sold as an event to rival the RSC’s memorable The Life And Adventures Of Nichols Nickleby. But that miracle took place over three decades ago, well before time became a fractured commodity and entertainment was delivered in tiny doses on minuscule screens and through earbuds. Take a vacation. Visit Wolf Hall.