BWW Reviews: Royal Shakespeare's WOLF HALL an Intriguing History Lesson
"Henchmen Are Forgotten" goes a song from Triumph of Love, and sure enough, though the story of Henry VIII has been told countless times in drama and literature, the focus is usually on the king's obsession to sire a son or on the half-dozen women who endured his wrath. (Okay, #6 didn't have it so bad.)
In the first two books of an intended trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel examined the point of view of the king's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, who handled the tricky maneuver of having Henry's marriage to first wife Katherine annulled so that he may marry Anne Boleyn- thus separating England from The Vatican - and then later building up a case against Boleyn to have that marriage annulled and the mother of the future Elizabeth I beheaded, clearing the way for Jane Seymour. (The title refers to both the family seat of the Seymours and the Latin expression, "Man is wolf to man.")
The Royal Shakespeare Company's sumptuously-acted stage version, directed by Jeremy Herrin with an adaptation penned by Mike Poulton, hits the Winter Garden as a major Broadway event, not just for its theatrical pedigree and epic length, but for presenting an intriguing history lesson about a working class Brit who made the upper crust take notice.
Officially titled Wolf Hall, Parts One and Two, the production is presented in two halves of close to three hours each. They play in repertory with separate admissions. While the plotting is dense with a cast of twenty-three playing numerous characters popping in and out, the language is accessible and quite entertaining. When Cromwell tries convincing Katherine to join a convent as an easy way to end her marriage, she replies, "You may tell the King that I will become a nun. My one condition is that Henry must become a monk."
This proves to be only a minor setback for our protagonist, played with tremendous skill by Ben Miles. Rarely leaving the stage, Miles' subtle way with the role lets us see him as both the little guy rising to power by making the impossible happen and as a ruthless manipulator destroying lives to earn favor with the king.
Nathaniel Parker does fine work as a robust and demanding Henry trying to spar with strong women like Lucy Briers' gracious and clever Katherine and Lydia Leonard's rambunctious Anne. Also making a notable impression is Paul Jesson as a salty Cardinal Wolsey.
The handsome design features a cold, sparse setting by Christopher Oram, allowing locations to change swiftly via the lighting by Paule Constable (Part One) and David Plater (Part Two). Oram also designed the period costumes, appropriately using somber tones.