Hilary Mantel’s first two novels of what will be a trilogy on the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell have opened as two plays on Broadway. The best thing you can do is strap in and see them both.
By Matt Gurry
Wolf Hall, the two-part theater adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s historical novels on Thomas Cromwell, will only appeal to history buffs. It’s about the majordomo of a political dynasty, whose head of government wants to go to war, expensive as it is, no other reason than his own legacy. It’s nothing people of our day have any familiarity with and an especially distant scenario for Americans, I’m sure.
But for those comfortable to live in the past, Mike Poulton’s adaptations are a rewarding six hours in two three-hour parts. I saw both with a friend in one marathon day (playing the standard 2pm/8pm schedule), and we both felt the plays’ fast clip moved like that of a 90-minute-no-intermission. That is, until we got back to our neighborhood, sighing with rewarded exhaustion.
Which brings us to the good news/bad news. The bad news: I really don’t think you can see one part without the other. The good news: I really don’t think you can see one part without the other.
Part One, the adaptation of the novel Wolf Hall, lays out important exposition. Thomas Cromwell is a lawyer of self-made wealth. He develops a cunning skill working for Cardinal Wolsey of knowing just what to say and, importantly, how not to say it. Wolsey is charged with securing the papal annulment of Henry VIII from Catherine of Aragon, fails, and would have been executed for treason were it not for death by natural cause. The king sees in Cromwell a political athlete whose lack of nobility and sheer intelligence allow him to get the job done. By the end of Part One, Cromwell has not only gotten Henry divorced from Katherine, but also England from Spain, England from Rome, and has placed Anne Boleyn on the throne and himself in stellar regnal grace.
In Part Two it all falls to hell. While billed here under a singular title, Mantel titled her novel Bring Up the Bodies, and anyone with any memory of Western Civ knows what happens to Boleyn. (“A” students may remember her trial and execution implicated a handful of others, from her brother charged with incest to her lutist whose main fault was having a big mouth.) Yet, Part Two’s bloodbath isn’t the gore of, say, Kill Bill, but rather the understatement of Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, where violence is shown in papers, files and presentations. Mainly, anyway.
Jeremy Herrin has staged Poulton’s adaptations with a movement that allows one event to, appropriately, bleed into the next. Though the playbill lists over 40 characters you’ll need to be responsible for, I’d say it’s not even necessary to have read the Wikipedia entry beforehand to keep it all straight. Herrin’s staging is focused, and Poulton’s streamlining palatable. (I will point out that many roles are double cast. For me, Christopher Oram’s costumes and the distinct choices made by the actors make clear who was what and when. My friend, however, mentioned being distracted by seeing the actress playing Katherine [Lucy Briers], Anne Boleyn’s enemy, also in the role of Lady Rocheford, a woman who was — to keep it simple — part of the Boleyn family.)
The two parts feel like two parts. Herrin has snowballed the action so that the second half of the second play moves with such morbid speed that all there’s time for by the end is to check names on death warrants. He’s also hired separate lighting designers, Paul Constable and David Plater, who move Part One’s naturalistic world to a more stylized atmosphere in Part Two. It all gallops to a final coup (pardon the pun) where Herrin’s staging of Boleyn’s execution and the not-long-after wedding of Henry to Jane Seymour achieved gasps from the audience — though most everyone in it (you get to know your row-mates if you see the marathon) knew in advance what happens. (It’s her family’s house, by the way, that give the story its title.)
Worth noting is that the Winter Garden, where Wolf Hall is playing, was built not as a theater but as the American Horse Exchange. The political games of Wolf Hall play excellently in the retrofitted sporting center. Christopher Oram, who also designed the unit set, has thrust the stage into the audience. The characters are in constant competition, and often don’t know whom against. The most exciting is that of Cromwell with Boleyn, who each need the other for their own needs — though who each spend plenty of time wanting the other dead. Lydia Leonard plays Boleyn in a way that makes you get what the big deal was. Though English, her formative years were in France and she now speaks with an affected accent. She’s not the most beautiful woman at court, but she’s the most apt at convincing others to both love and fear her. In short, she’s Madonna, had Madonna been executed after Like a Virgin.
At the center, though, is Thomas Cromwell. If you remember the name Cromwell, it’s likely for Oliver — a descendant by marriage who a century later would execute King Charles and establish the Commonwealth. Our Cromwell didn’t make it onto World History midterms, as his work was done in the shadows, and what events he orchestrated were recorded as acts of king and God. Ben Miles has somehow figured out how to convey the tricky role of a non-celebrity rock star. And, essential to the world Mantel has created, he’s able to depict a man who can fairly be argued as conniving, self-serving and even vile while being the hero we get behind. Whatever moment you realize Miles is playing this duality becomes is the exciting awareness that the real spectacle here isn’t larger than life, but very internal.
And that brings us back to why should we see Wolf Hall now. As I snarked above, it can be seen as a Tudor mirror showing in crisp reflection Karl Rove and Bush’s Iraq war. It can be The Crucible of today. But even more is on display here. When Henry leaves Katherine (and thereby separates England from Rome), he pushes the first domino in a series that will send pilgrims to the New World, where they will go on to establish and believe in American exceptionalism, that will take us in and out of war and onward to democracy/oil. And all along the way, it hasn’t been the swords and IEDs that have pushed us forward, but the bills and briefcases.
Wolf Hall plays at the Winter Garden Theatre through July 5. Tickets available here. Parts One and Two play in rep, with special marathon packages available, which again, is the option you want.
Last modified: July 27, 2017