'Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two': EW stage review
Hilary Mantel's award-winning books get a rousing royal treatment by the RSC
First things first: the stage adaptation of Wolf Hall is a long one. Those daring enough to sit through Parts One and Two in a single day–a Broadway binge, if you will–can look forward to spending six hours nestled in the Winter Garden Theatre. The good news: it’s worth every minute. Imported from London, where the plays were a smash, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s outstanding production does justice to the revered Hilary Mantel novels (which include the sequel Bring Up the Bodies) while also offering its own intriguing spin on the oft-retold historical drama.
That would be the story of Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), the 16th century political fixer and the kind of antihero that modern audiences have come to love: a savvy everyman who–through craft and cunning–escaped his ignoble background and became the most trusted advisor to King Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker). His skills were key in allowing Henry to divorce his first wife Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) and marry the ambitious Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard)—thus breaking England from the Church in Rome. Part One focuses on exactly how Cromwell did it, while Part Two shows us how he undid it. As he himself says, “Times have changed—our requirements have changed—and the facts must change behind us.” That serves as both Cromwell’s job description and the play’s synopsis.
Before that, we meet the man working under his first master, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Paul Jesson)– then quickly running into personal and professional hardship when the King brings the Cardinal down, the latter a trusted chum of Cromwell. The play also employs a ghost motif, keeping the Cardinal and Cromwell’s perished wife and daughters around after their demise, drifting on and off the stage as spirits haunting the memory of a man who forgets nothing. The pathos they provide Cromwell helps keep him likable, even as his actions become more despicable. But Cromwell bounces back stronger than ever, his actions producing more enemies, notably Thomas More (John Ramm), the pious Catholic who becomes Cromwell’s chief rival. Once Cromwell’s aims are achieved, new problems arise in Part Two, thanks to the King’s newfound interest in Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead), to say nothing of all the meddling Dukes and Lords who have their own demands and desires.
If this all sounds like a lot to keep up with, it’s true: The sheer number of players parading across the stage (nearly two dozen) can be overwhelming, particularly when it seems half of them are named Thomas. But Wolf Hall is remarkably efficient in streamlining the Mantel novels down to their most exciting essence, making the play’s pace seem much swifter than six hours. The immensely talented actors manage to make every backroom deal, courtier spat, and royal tantrum fully enjoyable.
As it happens, veteran stage actor and three-time Tony winner Mark Rylance (Jerusalem) is also playing Cromwell at the moment in the BBC’s terrific miniseries adaptation of Wolf Hall. Rylance offers a quieter and more melancholic take, spending much time peering soulfully. Miles’ Cromwell is a quick, nimble mind with a slick tongue that can’t help but lob delicious quips, be it at a lute player or a queen. This is closer to how Mantel imagined him in her novels, which were as comic as they were dramatic—equal parts Veep and House of Cards. The RSC’s Wolf Hall toes that line exceedingly well, with dark laughs rolling by as frequently as the heads. A–