It’ll be another three months before the American Revolution arrives on Broadway, with the hip-hop musical Hamilton. In the meantime, the Great White Way has been pledging allegiance to the British Crown, first with The Audience, a play in which Helen Mirren portrays Queen Elizabeth II over 60 years, and now with Wolf Hall, Parts 1 and 2, two plays newly opened at the Winter Garden Theatre, in which Nathaniel Parker portrays Henry VIII over six long hours.
The six-hour Wolf Hall on stage is not to be confused with the six-episode Wolf Hall TV series currently being broadcast on PBS, starring Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis, Sundays through May 10. Both TV series and stage plays are based on Hilary Mantel’s two popular, award-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and its sequel “Bring Up The Bodies.”
The central character of all these Wolf Halls is not Henry himself but the Tudor King’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, the son of an abusive blacksmith who rose up to become, according to many historians, a chief architect of the English Reformation, and a talented lawyer who helped preside over England’s transition from a medieval to a modern nation. Ben Miles plays Cromwell in Mike Poulton’s stage adaptation.
The two plays, which can be seen on separate nights or in a day-long marathon, have transferred largely intact from the well-received Royal Shakespeare Company production in London, and are being promoted as “the theatrical event of the season.” There is certainly inherent promise in the English history dramatized on stage, roughly from 1527 to 1535. In Part 1, Cromwell helps Henry engineer a break with the Church of Rome so that the king can annul his 18-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, because she has failed to give birth to a male heir who has survived past infancy. Meanwhile, Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) schemes to be queen. She says things like: “The Pope shall learn his place. I am the woman to show him what his place is!” It is a period of intrigue, as well as convulsive change and bloody violence.
As I left for the dinner break between the two plays, I realized that Part 1 was a shocking experience for me. But what shocked me was how dull I found it.
Not all of it: Some scenes hit their mark, such as when Cromwell is trying to convince Katherine of Aragon (stand-out Lucy Briers) to enter a convent, one of the few legally accepted ways at the time of ending a marriage.
“Perhaps he is right? No one wants us; perhaps God wants us,” Katherine says to her daughter. “Very well, Master Cromwell. You may tell the King that I will become a nun.”
“My one condition is that Henry must become a monk.”
But after 30 scenes over nearly three hours, with the 23-member cast portraying some 40 characters who mostly just talk a lot, I was longing for a beheading or two.
A good test of whether or not your reaction would differ comes in the very last moments before the Intermission in Part 1, when Cromwell asks a small nervous young woman (portrayed by Leah Brotherhead) her identity.
“Oh I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour.”
This is obviously meant to be a dramatic moment.
If your reaction is “Ah, Jane Seymour; the plot thickens,” or even “Who’s Jane Seymour? I can’t wait to find out” – Wolf Hall might be for you.
Part 2 focuses on the fall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour, Henry’s second and third wives, and actually has some beheadings, as well as a credible-looking deer carcass during a royal hunt, and a theatrically intense fire, and men (briefly) in shining armor, and a near-death experience, and adultery and even some mild torture and accusations of incest.
In an extended sequence of scenes, Cromwell turns the king’s order to find a way to get rid of Anne (because she too has not produced a male heir) into his calmly brutal personal quest for revenge. He pays back a group of men who had mistreated his mentor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Paul Jesson) — who even after he’s dead makes periodic appearances on stage (as a ghost) — by accusing them of having sex with the queen, and methodically achieving their convictions. Still, despite all of these juicy goings-on, I found Part 2 only minimally more satisfying than Part 1. The occasional arresting moments came amid another 33 scenes over another nearly three hours with another parade of dozens of hard-to-distinguish characters – most of the men seem to be named Thomas – acting as if we should know who they are.
I would surely feel more guilty about my reaction to Wolf Hall – Am I really so uncultured? Can I ever show my face in Great Britain again? – had I not returned home after the theatrical marathon, and caught the first episode of the TV series on PBS. In it, Cromwell (played by Mark Rylance) comes home to find his wife dead of “the sweating disease,” and then watches as his two daughters die of it as well. It is a moving scene, absent from the stage play, which only makes fleeting reference to his family’s death (and briefly presents his wife as a ghost much later.) But, in the TV episode, it lingers both in our consciousness, and in Cromwell’s demeanor, helping to explain his subsequent actions. On the basis of the first episode, there is more of an emphasis in the TV series on developing the characters; more clarity about who these people are. You don’t feel as if you needed to grow up in England, or read the novels first.
There is no substitute for sharing the same air with a company of capable actors, and theatrical stagecraft is more likely to feel enveloping than almost any other art form: If Christopher Oram’s set design in the Wolf Hall on Broadway is minimal, his costumes are evocative of the era, and there are some striking tableaus achieved by lighting designer David Plater. But some adaptations simply work better than others.
Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2 are on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre 1634 Broadway (between 50th & 51st)
New York, NY 10019
Details and tickets