Wolf Hall RSC Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

By Michael Hillyer

Spring has finally snuck into New York, and nipping at its heels is Wolf Hall in a double–whammy arrival; on television in an eye-popping PBS Masterpiece Theatre series starring Mark Rylance, and onstage at the Winter Garden Theatre.  A stolid Ben Miles heads a stellar Royal Shakespeare Company cast in a limited run of Mike Poulton’s six-hour adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up The Bodies. The Broadway production, which chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell from obscurity to power in the court of the last Tudor King, Henry VIII, is divided into two parts, and can either be attended on separate evenings or on the same day, with a dinner break.

Performed upon an open stage under an overhanging honey-comb of metal, bordered by immense stone walls on every side and dominated by an upstage Cross, this fast-moving production seems to take place within the medieval confines of an implacable, gigantic beehive. There are many bees busy within, as well, as twenty-three actors cover just over forty roles, in action that spans a good chunk of Henry’s forty-year reign (1509-1547) in multiple locales; there are no less than twenty-two producers listed in the program, in addition to the talented creative team. This is a massive undertaking, clearly, closely rivaling in scope the company’s 1980 double-bill production of Nicholas Nickleby, which sported an eight-hour-plus running time and almost twice as many actors.

The human apiary in Wolf Hall is Henry’s Royal Court, and the King and his colony of drones and worker bees are connected by the task of trying to get a series of hapless Queens (there would be six of them before the last axe fell) impregnated by Henry with a male heir. They were famously unsuccessful, as we well know; perhaps the greatest irony of this vast, fruitless effort is that it would result, many blood-soaked years later, in the ascendancy of the greatest of England’s monarchs, a virgin Queen who would die unwed (small wonder) and without an heir. But the story of Wolf Hall does not go that far; this narrative of Cromwell’s rise to power spans only the reigns of Queens Catherine of Aragon and Ann Boleyn, with young Jane Seymour steadily on the rise.

This fascinating, turbulent patch of English history has been covered in performance media probably more than any other, and its characters are familiar to us from movies like A Man For All Seasons, Anne Of A Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl, and television’s popular two seasons of The Tudors. So here they all are again, forever locked together in bloody struggle and bitter failure: Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, Bishops Cramner and Gardiner, Thomas More, the House of Tudor and the families Boleyn and Seymour.

Wolf Hall, the building to which the title of this play refers, is the ancestral seat of the Seymour family in Wiltshire, although it is never seen in this production. It’s motto, however, “Homo homini lupus,” (Man is Wolf to Man) is here everywhere on display; the action grows more feral and lupine as the play wears on, morphing the ensemble from humming bee colony to ravenous wolf-pack as the mercurial Henry goes from divorcing his Queens to simply having them beheaded.
The main novelty of Hilary Mantel’s books, apart from their brilliant prose style, is the sympathetic take on Thomas Cromwell, who has been remembered by history chiefly as a brutal, unscrupulous scoundrel, the bullying nemesis of the saintly Thomas More, who will stop at nothing to satisfy the desires of a dangerous and increasingly unpredictable King. Wolf Hall is more interested in how the son of a Putney blacksmith was able to leap over seemingly impassible social barriers to become Master Secretary of the Privy Council, and later a Baron. This reworking of the well-known historical narrative’s perspective is much less effective onstage than it was in the novel, as Cromwell is imagined in both as a cautious family man making his way forward in a perilous political world. He is pragmatic, imperturbable, and also pretty hard to read. The excellent Ben Miles is giving a smoldering, finely nuanced performance in this understated role, but at the end of the day it doesn’t add up to much drama. The same could be said of the production as a whole; as beautiful and fine as it may be, it is flat.

Regardless, whenever the RSC is in town in this kind of force, there is always good reason to rejoice. The company assembled here is a joy to watch, and the number of riveting performances given in Wolf Hall is off the charts. The staging by Jeremy Herrin is exceptionally good, the design elements ditto (especially costumes and lights) and in a production chock-full of stand-out acting turns Ben Miles (Thomas Cromwell), Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn), Nathaniel Parker (Henry VIII), and the astonishing Paul Jesson (Cardinal Wolsey) rise well above the general. The excellent first part of Wolf Hall hurtles by; those attending a double performance should be advised that the play will put them out on the sidewalk in midtown searching for an open restaurant at 4PM, with a dinner break ahead slightly in excess of 2 ½ hours. There are lots of nearby restaurants, but most of them aren’t open for dinner that early. Plan accordingly, and perhaps finish your meal with a strong cup of coffee before you head back to the theatre for round two.

Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two – Part One: Wolf Hall: Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies

By Hilary Mantel; adapted by Mike Poulton; directed by Jeremy Herrin

WITH: Joey Batey (Mark Smeaton), Nicholas Boulton (Charles Brandon), Lucy Briers (Katherine of Aragon/Jane Boleyn), Leah Brotherhead (Princess Mary/Jane Seymour/Lady Worcester), Olivia Darnley (Lizzie Wykys/Mary Boleyn/Mary Shelton), Nicholas Day (Thomas Howard), Daniel Fraser (Gregory Cromwell), Edward Harrison (George Boleyn/Edward Seymour), Madeleine Hyland (Margery Seymour)/Lady-in-waiting/Maid), Paul Jesson (Thomas Wolsey), Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn), Ben Miles (Thomas Cromwell), Pierro Niel-Mee (Christophe/Francis Weston), Nathaniel Parker (King Henry VIII), John Ramm (Henry Norris), Nicholas Shaw (Harry Percy/William Brereton), Joshua Silver (Rafe Sadler), Giles Taylor (Thomas Boleyn) and Jay Taylor (Thomas Wyatt).

Sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; Part One lighting by Paule Constable and Part Two lighting by David Plater; music by Stephen Warbeck; sound by Nick Powell; movement by Sian Williams; associate director, Joe Murphy; production stage manager, Michael J. Passaro; production manager, Aurora Productions; company manager, Megan Curren; associate producer, Steven Strauss; general manager, James Triner Theatricals. A Royal Shakespeare Company production, presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Matthew Byam Shaw, Nia Janis and Nick Salmon for Playful Productions UK, Carole Shorenstein Hays, Jam Theatricals, Ron Kastner, Kyodo Tokyo, Inc., Tulchin Bartner Productions, WLE MSG, Jane Bergère, Scott M. Delman, Rebecca Gold, Just for Laughs Theatricals, Kit Seidel, Triple Play Productions, Gabrielle Palitz, Georgia Gatti, Jessica Genick, Will Trice and the Shubert Organization. At the Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway, at 50th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, wolfhallbroadway.com. Through July 5. Running time each part: 2 hours 40 minutes.