By Hilary Mantel, Adapted by Mike Poulton; Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Broadway, New Plays
Runs through 7.5.15
Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway
by Dan Dinero on 4.16.15
The Company of Wolf Hall (West End Production). Photo by Johan Persson.
BOTTOM LINE: Marathon theatre at its best, Wolf Hall is catnip (or is that wolfnip?) for fans of Tudor history, yet also incredibly accessible storytelling for everyone else.
No doubt fans of Dame Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (both won the Booker Prize) have been eagerly anticipating the Broadway transfer of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall. No doubt others, upon hearing that it’s six hours of Tudor history, ask “is Mamma Mia still playing?” No, Wolf Hall might not be for everyone, but great theatre never is. What I can say is that this adaptation is not just for those who know Jane Seymour from Jane Grey, and Thomas Cromwell from Thomas More (not to mention Thomas Wolsey, Thomas Wyatt, and Thomas Cranmer). While there are a ton of characters (many who are named Thomas), adaptor Mike Poulton, along with Mantel (who I believe made tweaks for an American audience) have produced a version of Wolf Hall that is clear, concise, and almost never confusing, all while maintaining much of the complexity that makes this material so riveting.
So how much history do you need to know before you walk in? Not much, really (and there aren’t even any program notes you’ll feel pressured to read). Wolf Hall begins in the 1520s: King Henry VIII (he of the six wives) is on the throne, but although he’s been married to Catherine of Aragon for twenty years, there is no male heir. The King must have a son! And it is this quest that drives everything that follows – but perhaps not in ways you would expect.
It also helps to know – more for dramatic resonance than for plot comprehension – that Catherine, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour – King Henry’s first three wives – are the only ones who bore him children (one each) who survived past infancy. And all three kids (Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward respectively) later ascended the throne. So when Wolf Hall keeps teasing us about Jane Seymour (the play itself takes its name from the Seymour estate), it’s because Jane is the one who will give the King the son he so desperately needs. And of course it’s actually Anne’s daughter Elizabeth who will leave perhaps the most lasting legacy.
One of Mantel’s major interventions is that Wolf Hall focuses not on the King, or on his wives, but on Thomas Cromwell, a “blacksmith’s boy” who, over time, rises to a position of great influence and prominence. For those who haven’t encountered this era much before, Cromwell is often portrayed as a calculating, unprincipled, power-hungry villain. Yet as played by the wonderfully inscrutable Ben Miles, Cromwell, a man blessed with “ready wit and vigorous invention,” never appears conniving or outwardly vengeful, but instead as one who has a strong, even admirable, moral compass. Yet he is also fiercely loyal to a select few, even after they’re dead, and believes that, if necessary, “the facts must change” for the good of King and country.
Those currently watching the BBC adaptation with Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis might think “why pay good money for what I can see for free on PBS?” So it’s worth mentioning that the two adaptations are quite different – unlike the BBC version (and the novels), the stage version maintains a consistently chronological timeline, without flashbacks that might prove confusing or necessitate explanatory supertitles. And director Jeremy Herrin refrains from trying to recreate every location; he instead opts to do what theatre does best – provoke the audience’s imagination.
Christopher Oram’s set is an enormous cement diamond that juts out into the audience, one that is ornamented by…almost nothing. Every so often a small fire is lit, but this only manages to evoke a sense of chill and isolation. Four cement panels make up the back wall, and throughout the six hours they imperceptibly move apart, creating an ever-widening cross. Pieces of furniture are used only occasionally: the trial court is signaled by a wagon of books, and a boat on the Thames is conjured up by a group of people huddled together on a trunk.
Yet even though the locations change consistently, it’s always clear where we are and what is happening. Paule Constable and David Plater’s lighting designs certainly help – transitioning us from interiors to exteriors while simultaneously giving us subtle cues about where to look. And Herrin’s transitions are breath-takingly effective in their simplicity – just by having Ben Miles (who never seems to leave the stage) pivot or kneel while everyone else walks off, we swiftly move from one scene to the next. And then there are Oram’s incredibly luxe period costumes, which make it extremely easy to keep track of who’s who. In fact, Oram’s designs are so effective at creating recognizable and memorable characters that I wasn’t even aware some actors play multiple roles until I looked in the Playbill.
Certainly there are many themes here that resonate with contemporary life: the ever-shifting alliances between different nations; whether it’s better to remain faithful to religious tradition or re-interpret it for modern times and audiences; and the ways in which supposedly minor actions can later prove to have enormous consequences. But if there is one lesson to be found in the incredible six-hour-long experience that is Wolf Hall, it is that “the past changes all the time.” Like its hero Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall looks past the need for fidelity to historical facts and embraces the ambiguity that is inevitable when so much occurs behind closed doors. As Hamilton (another current show that focuses on an overlooked historical figure) puts it: “no one else was in the room where it happened.” Both for their benefit and our enjoyment, Cromwell and Wolf Hall exploit this truth, proving that one can change the past…again, and again, and again.
(Wolf Hall Parts One & Two plays at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway at 50th Street, through July 5, 2015. Marathon show days are Wednesdays (Part One at 2PM, Part Two at 7:30PM), Saturdays (2PM and 8PM), and Sundays (1PM and 6:30PM). There are also performances (of either Part One: Wolf Hall or Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies) on Thursdays at 7PM and Fridays at 8PM. Tickets for a single part are $85.50-$157.50; ticket packages (both parts together) are $150-$295. For the full schedule, more information, and to purchase tickets visit wolfhallbroadway.com or call Telecharge at 212.239.6200)