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A CurtainUp Review
Wolf Hall — Parts One And Two
By Elyse Sommer
Mantel's retelling of the tumultuous reign of Henry the Eighth from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell — and with a new take on his character— has obviously reinvigorated interest in this much told tale. The novels have sold more than three million copies and have now spawned a simultaneously running BBC series and a two-part stage adaptation.
The producers of each of these dramatized versions clearly see their shows opening at the same time more a plus than a problem of competing for audiences; to wit, the program for the 2-parter at the Winter Garden includes a full page ad for the TV series. And, given the comments from people during the intermission at the all-in-one performance I attended, they're right. Most intend to watch the series, as I do since these are two entirely different interpretations, each with its own stellar cast.
Having seen just the first episode of the BBC series I can't tell you exactly what to expect other than that it seems to hew closely to Mantel's book than Poulton's stage adaptation is quite different. The stage adaptation which can be seen on different nights, or as and afternoon/evening double header like last year's event: their in rep Twelfth Night and Richard III The Wolf Hall 2-parter not quite as thrilling and poetic as those Shakespeare plays. But then Mantel, though a first-rate historical novelist with a flair for unique perspectives on history, is not Shakespeare — and neither is Mike Poulton.
That quibble aside, I was never bored or sorry I'd given a whole day of my life to this enterprise. Mr. Poulton has remained faithful to Mantel's concept of reinvigorating the much told story of Tudor England by using Thomas Cromwell as its narrator, and also given it stronger stage chops. He and the entire creative team have successfully made the much married king's story feel fresh and absorbing, an easy to follow 16th Century Horatio Alger story with a Machiavellian twist.
The production is also a rich in pageantry, like the stately dance that opens up Part One that establishes the early fifteenth century setting. Count on more such scenes from Movement Director Sian Williams, as well as a breathtaking dance macabre scene. All this lit to mood-setting perfection by Paule Constable and David Plater. The cast is one short of two-dozen actors. The mind-boggling array of gorgeous and authentic costumes (also by Christopher Oram) contribute to making this a theatrical treat in this day of minimally staged, small cast shows.
Unlike those plentiful and plush costumes, Oram's set is quite austere. A bare stage, with only an occasional carried on prop, is framed by concrete slabs and dominated by a giant cross on the back wall. To accommodate this flexible set, the stage has been expanded and the front sections of the orchestra re-configured for frequent entrances and exits by actors across newly created aisles in front of the side "A" rows.
With its abundance of witty barbs and mostly sharp but occasionally wearisome humor (like repeat references to Katherine, the first wife Henry ditches, being flat-chested) the show often feels like a comedy. This despite the bloody executions referred to in the dark second part.
While much happens over the course of the narrative's eight year time span (with Part One covering all but the last nine months), the event with the most lasting effect on Great Britain to this day is the separation of England's Church from Roman rule. But while that break was the result of King Henry's urgent need for a proper heir this is Thomas Cromwell's story.
Henry's angst about challenges to his crown, his marital peccadillos as well as the various other court and international intrigues are here triggers for Cromwell's rise from a humble background to a position of extraordinary power. His story is also a revenge tale since Cromwell's rise up the power ladder begins with his connection to Wolsey whose downfall he regrets even as he takes his place as the King's ally.
Ben Miles is a potent Cromwell. Though on stage for the six hours, he lets us see how Cromwell's humble background, keeps him an outsider even as he becomes a master manipulator who does what he has to do to gain and retain power. The equally manipulative Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) may assure him that he can't turn her "thoughts" into treasonable action, he counters with "I can" — and does. His wry comebacks are highlights of the various interchanges.
In the first episode of the BBC series that I saw, Cromwell's losing his wife and two daughters to the Black Plague is staged as it happens. In this briskly condensed staging, that trauma is kept off-stage, except for a brief and quite stunning upstage funeral procession, with the grieving Cromwell watching downstage. This actually and most effectively underscore Miles's cool, self-contained portrayal.
Good as Miles's performance is, this isn't a one-star vehicle. The one major standout is Paul Jesson as a terrifically down-to-earth Cardinal Wolsey. Fortunately, though his standing in the way of Henry's wish to divorce his first wife, makes him the first victim to lose his head, he comes out of his heavenly resting place often enough for numerous interchanges with Cromwell. The one pretty much superfluous character in this interpretation is Thomas More (John Ramm), who's been the main character of a still occasionally revived play, Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons . His presence here adds little to the play. As for the King and his past, present and future wives. Nathaniel Parker aptly captures Henry's mix of insecurity and grandiosity. Lucy Briers is understandably bitter, if perhaps ultimately a bit too shrill, as Katherine, the first wife to be ditched. Lydia Leonard does her best with the fiercely ambitious Anne Boleyn, even though there's no suspense about her luck in producing an heir and what's going to happen to her. Leah Brotherhead plays both Mary, the one live child Katherine produced — but not of the sex Henry deems proper for an heir — , and the young Jane Seymour who becomes his latest pick as the wife to turn things around.
Of course, both Katherine's daughter Mary and Anne's daughter Elizabeth became Queens, Mary Tudor (also known as Bloody Mary) and Elizabeth as a much stage and film dramatized powerful Queen of England. And the present British Queen is one of the country's longest reigning, if less powerful monarchs. Just think, without the once prevailing sexist view of crown-worthiness, we wouldn't have Wolf Hall the best seller, to create a built-in audience for this 15-week run to keep Winter Garden theater's seats filled.