“Wolf Hall” — An Epic, But It Helps to Know Your English History

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Photo by Johan Persson
Photo by Johan Persson

By Karen Isaacs

 While watching the two parts of Wolf Hall, I sighed in relief that I had spent my younger years fascinated by English history — particularly the Tudors and the Plantagenets.  Anyone who has not read the novels on which it is based nor seen the currently running series on PBS of the same name, OR been fascinated by that period in history,  will find a score card of characters and events is definitely needed.

It is based on the first two novels of a trilogy (the third has yet to be published) by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII.  The novels are Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

 A little background is perhaps in order.  Thomas Cromwell was one of Henry VIII’s chief advisors in his divorce from Catharine of Aragon, the split with the Catholic church, his marriage with Anne Boleyn and later her downfall.  While not as famous today as Thomas More (perhaps thanks to the play and film A Man for All Seasons), historians view Cromwell as influential in the break with the Rome and the establishment of the Reformation in England.  He is not be confused with the later (Oliver) Cromwell who dethroned Charles I. (Oliver Cromwell was a descendent of Thomas’ sister.)

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. Photo by Johan Persson
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. Photo by Johan Persson

Cromwell was born into a working class background but rose well above his station:  he was a mercenary soldier in France, worked with Italian banking houses, had associations with the Pope, was well known in London business and financial circles, and was a protégé of Cardinal Wolsey, one of Henry’s chief advisors.

As Henry despairs of having a living male heir, he begins to question the validity of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon who has produced only one living child (Mary) and who had been married while a young teen to Henry’s older brother Arthur.  She claimed the marriage was never consummated before Arthur died.  But Henry has become enchanted with Anne Boleyn whose older sister had been Henry’s mistress.  Anne is clever and realizes that “giving in” to Henry will not get her what she wants: the crown as Queen.  So she puts him off and he begins to plot ways to end his marriage with Catherine, the aunt of the King of Spain.  Buy Catherine is not willing to be set aside by entering a nunnery and wants to ensure her daughter’s inheritance.

Wolf Hall Part I as it is called on Broadway deals with the various plots to achieve that goal, attempts to annul the marriage, plotting by Anne and her family that causes the downfall of Wolsey, and the eventual divorce, the break with Rome and the marriage.

Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII. Photo by Johan Persson
Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII. Photo by Johan Persson

Wolf Hall Part 2 is based on the second book and deals with Cromwell’s increasing importance,  the disagreement between him and Anne and Henry’s disenchantment with Boleyn when first a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth I) is born and then a series of miscarriages of boys. His eye has also been captured by one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, the demure Jane Seymour.  If you remember any of the many films made about Elizabeth or Anne, you know that Anne was convicted of adultery and other crimes and beheaded, paving the way for Henry’s marriage to Jane.

This Royal Shakespeare Company production which was adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin is fast paced: A series of scenes that move swiftly. This is where some prior knowledge is helpful. The play opens with Wolsey and Cromwell but before you know it we are meeting Queen Catherine, her daughter Mary, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Thomas More, the Boleyn father and son, as well Cromwell’s wife and assorted others. So it goes — swiftly changing locations, scenes and personages, mixed in with pageantry.

The set by Christopher Oram, who also did the excellent costumes, is minimalist with what appears to be a concrete wall of four panels at the back which can resemble a cross against the concrete.  The lighting by Paule Constable (Part I) and David Plater (Part II) focuses on darkness with even the major players and scenes in low light. In addition there is authentic sounding music by Stephen Warbeck,  movement by Sian Williams and interesting sound by Nick Powell.

Paul Jesson as Cardinal Wolsey. Photo by Johan Persson
Paul Jesson as Cardinal Wolsey. Photo by Johan Persson

But this play depends on its cast — particularly the main players (Cromwell, Henry, Anne) as well as the major supporting players (Wolsey, More, Crammer, Catherine).  Overall they are excellent.

Ben Miles is Cromwell and plays him as both a “company man” and one who always looks out for his own interests. He is a man playing the angles to gain and then keep power.  Many in the court cannot forget his humble beginnings.  Yet he also projects a man of principle — at least some of his actions regarding the church and the reformation are based on real beliefs and not just expediency.

Nathaniel Parker, known in the US for the Inspector Lynley series on PBS, plays Henry as the King who became increasingly power hungry and impatient. Lydia Leonard plays Anne as a mercurial woman who can switch from innocence to schemer in seconds.  Equally fine are those playing the major supporting players.   Paul Jesson gives Wolsey a moral authority, while John Ramm makes More much less noble than Paul Scofield did in A Man for All Seasons. Lucy Briers’ Queen Catherine is dignified and determined.

The preferred way to see Wolf Hall is to purchase tickets for both parts — they are

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Lyida Leonard as Anne Boleyn. Photo by Johan Perssson
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Lyida Leonard as Anne Boleyn. Photo by Johan Perssson

offering some discounts for that — but I would recommend seeing it on two nights and not as part of an matinee/evening marathon. If you want to see only one, take your pick but read up on the history before you go — even a summary of the books will help you if you select to see only Part 2.

 This is one those epic productions that will win great attention and probably multiple awards.  Yet while interesting, the swiftness of the scenes and the epic scope left me both intellectually and emotionally uninvolved.

Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2 are at the Wintergarden Theater on Broadway at 51st Street to June 28. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn and the company. Photo by Johan Persson
Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn and the company. Photo by Johan Persson

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