look closely. think twice. cut once.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Margin Notes: Wolf Hall, Pts. 1 & 2

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell. Photo by
Johan Persson.
Wolf Hall, Pts. 1 & 2
Part One: Wolf Hall
Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies

Seen on: Thursday, 4/2/15 and Friday, 4/3/15.
My grade: A. Competently done, all around.

Plot and Background
Wolf Hall tracks Thomas Cromwell's rise from being the fallen Cardinal Wolsey's supporter and friend to becoming King Henry VIII's right hand man, despite class and religious prejudices of the King's other advisers. He must bring about the annulment of King Henry's marriage to his first wife, Katherine (and in so doing, separate England forever from the Pope and Catholicism), and arrange his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies continues the narrative after the marriage, as Anne fails to produce a male heir, and the King's attentions wander to the young Jane Seymour. Cromwell must again negotiate an annulment to the King's marriage, by any means necessary. These two plays, produced by the RSC in January 2013 and transplanted now to Broadway, are based on the first two novels of an intended trilogy by Hilary Mantel, which reframes King Henry's reign from the perspective of his political fixer Thomas Cromwell. The novels were award-winning though controversial, and have also inspired a BBC miniseries (now airing on PBS) starring Mark Rylance.

What I Knew Beforehand
I knew that this was based on the first two books of a very popular trilogy of novels (third novel not yet out) by Hilary Mantel, following Cromwell's adventures with Henry VIII. And I vaguely remembered what some of those adventures might entail from history class, some movies, some plays, you know the drill.

Thoughts:

Play: What's fascinating, watching the smoothly manipulative Cromwell navigate his way through these six hours, is on how many levels he's operating simultaneous. What is his primary drive? Is it a simple rise to power? A desire for control and influence over his monarch? A forwarding of Martin Luther and the Gospels? Serving his king? Or - as the final chilling tableau would have us believe - a protracted but sure revenge on the people responsible for the death of his spiritual father? It made me really want three things: 1 - part three; 2 - to read the books; 3 - to see how the miniseries handles it. This was a very cool perspective on a story we've already seen from a variety of angles (history class, The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, a spot of A Man for All Seasons, and other retellings) but this one focuses on Cromwell and not the more dramatic royals. It's behind the scenes in a different way - where policy is crafted, bargains struck, and the ladder slowly but surely climbed by the "butcher's boy." My one real criticism would be that both parts are rather long. My other vague criticism may spout from the fact that I was rather foggy in the head from a cold when I saw the show, and so while I had no difficulty following the plot or staying awake, there were an awful lot of characters whose wrongs I couldn't always track - it just all gets rather busy when you're dealing with history, I suppose. It was a good production, and if not action-packed, it was packed with men  (and a few women) planning their next move.

Final random thought: It was interesting, with the 2008 Frank Langella revival of A Man For All Seasons still fresh in my memory, to see Cromwell and More play the villains in each other's stories.

Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard as Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn.
Photo by Johan Persson.

Cast: Ben Miles does truly terrific and subtle work work as the mild-mannered master manipulator (I'm sorry, I tried but I couldn't help myself) Thomas Cromwell. From what I understand, the novel puts you inside Cromwell's head; here, though Cromwell hardly leaves the stage, Miles's inscrutable expression still leaves much to our imagination as to what is behind each move he makes. It shows just why he is so good at what he does. Nathaniel Parker, meanwhile, gives a solid performance as the stout King of strong will but weak resistance, the leader who is easily led. The women were all particularly strong as well - Lydia Leonard as the spitfire Anne, Leah Brotherhead as the sweet but deceptively perceptive Jane Seymour, Lucy Briers as the dethroned Katherine, and Olivia Darnley as Cromwell's departed wife, ever a presence haunting him.

Design: Christopher Oram's set is a cold, hard world of grey stone flecked occasionally with bands of fire. It is in this void that the play takes place, with little other dressing than the odd chair or table, and the diamond jutting of stairs into the audience (forming a bit of a thrust, though it is still largely proscenium staged, from a purist's standpoint). Paule Constable's and David Plater's light shafts through the various breaks in the side walls, through the  cross that breaks up the back wall, and helps shape the space and give us a sense of time, of passage, of place.

***

Running: Now playing at Winter Garden Theatre (The Royal Shakespeare Company) - Opening April 9, 2015. Closing: July 5, 2015
Category: straight plays
Length: WH: 2 hours, 50 minutes, including intermission; BUtB: remarkably, also 2 hours, 50 minutes, including intermission

Creative Team

Playwright: Hilary Mantel (Adapted by Mike Poulton)
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Designers: Christopher Oram (Set & Costume), Paule Constable (Lighting), David Plater (Lighting - BUtB), Nick Powell (Sound), Stephen Warbeck (Composer), Sian Williams (Movement), Bret Yount (Fight Director).
Cast: Ben Miles, Nathaniel Parker, Lydia Leonard, Joey Batey, Nicholas Boulton, Lucy Briers, Leah Brotherhead, Olivia Darnley, Nicholas Day, Mathew Foster, Daniel Fraser, Edward Harrison, Benedict Hastings, Madeleine Hyland, Paul Jesson, Robert MacPhearson, Pierro Niel-Mee, Matthew Pidgeon, John Ramm, Nicholas Saw, Joshua Silver, Giles Taylor, Jay Taylor.

Nathaniel Parker (and cast) as King Henry VIII. Photo by Johan Persson.

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