Amy D. Stackhouse, Ph.D.
The Winter Garden Theater, New York City
April 25, 2015
Full disclosure: I think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both Man Booker Prize winners, are two of the most creative works of literary historical fiction written in our time. So when I saw in the New York Review of Books the full-page advertisement for the Broadway debut of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which, for some reason, was called Wolf Hall Part 2 for the American audience, my heart leapt, especially since I am also a fan of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
For those of you who might have missed the books or the BBC series, Wolf Hall is a sympathetic portrayal of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the court of Henry VIII from about 1500 to Thomas More’s death in 1535. Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in the trilogy, the third of which is provisionally titled “The Mirror and the Light,” and it follows Cromwell from shortly after the death of More through the death of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour.
While I was excited to get tickets to the nearly sold-out previews and to see both plays in a single marathon day, I was a little concerned about how the novels would transfer to the stage, especially since it is their style that so appeals to me as a reader. Unlike Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which assumes the reader is unfamiliar with Tudor history and provides a data dump in the first pages to bring the reader up to speed, Mantel’s novels are a delicate touch, dropping hints, but not afraid to leave the reader hanging for a bit before she realizes who is who and what is what. Mantel does this quite effectively, so effectively in fact, that I have heard many complaints that if the reader puts the book down for a day or two, she cannot remember what is happening or who it is happening to. A forced page-turner. Mantel knows what she is doing.
These novels are compelling not only because of their unusual sympathy for Thomas Cromwell — and if you don’t think Cromwell could be portrayed as a hero, you should pick up Wolf Hall — but also because of their immediacy and subtlety. The novels are told in present tense in a free indirect discourse, almost as though they are Cromwell’s own diaries written in the third person. The cadences are brief and direct, occasionally leaving pronouns ambiguous, but the pace keeps moving forward and the reader quickly catches up. The characters are deftly portrayed, all three-dimensional, filled with political savvy and an acute awareness of the distinction between being and seeming. These novels challenge and delight, but they are not bedtime reading.
So how does one portray this immediacy, this interiority, this speed and subtlety on the stage? If anyone could do it, it would be the Royal Shakespeare Company, a company that can make an audience suspend disbelief and forget it is in a theater, even in uncomfortable seats. (By the way, the Winter Garden’s seats are some of the most comfortable on Broadway or in London’s West End. Good thing, too, because these plays are two and a half hours long.)
The acting was indeed brilliant in both plays and one wonders how the actors managed to perform two challenging plays in one day. The scenes shifted breathlessly, seamlessly, and elegantly across Christopher Oram’s minimalist set that felt somewhere between the inside of an industrial machine and a medieval castle. Ben Miles’s Cromwell was understated. Although he was nearly always on stage, always close to the center, he came across as mysterious without being deliberately so. His Cromwell was the quietly rational, extremely capable, and slightly dangerous man Mantel portrays him to be in her novels. A fixer par excellence. Yet, Miles’s Cromwell is also true to Mantel’s vision in another way: he is moral and sympathetic. We see him worrying about the political implications for his friend Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) when Wolsey isn’t able to secure Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers). The scene where Lizzie Wykys (Olivia Darnley), Cromwell’s wife, dies is gentle and deeply moving. Lizzie silently drops her bag as she exits the stage; Thomas silently picks it up; a coffin appears upstage; snowflakes fall; and the rest is silence. Cromwell remarks later to Rafe Sadler (Joshua Silver), “I’ve lost my girls, Rafe…Everything I’ve worked for all these years…” We see Cromwell as a private man. Despite his background as the blacksmith’s boy who became the shrewd politician, his values are solidly centered in his household, around his love for his wife and the many children he fathered and adopted. Even those in the audience who are unfamiliar with the books — and there were quite a few of those in the audience the day I saw the plays — are moved.
A challenge for Mike Poulton in adapting the novels to the stage was how to get across tremendously intricate material, while also maintaining a comprehensible dramatic plot for an audience who might not know anything at all about Tudor history. In Bring Up the Bodies, he does this well. The narrative arc centers on Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), proud, sophisticated, and complex. From her marriage to her death, we hate her arrogance, we admire her savvy, and we pity her losses. The fact that we can both be disgusted by her scheming and pity her in the end is a great tribute to Lydia Leonard’s acting skills.
The only danger with the second play is that it sacrifices some of the subtlety of the characters to the plot. We need Anne’s ladies in waiting to be conniving. We need Henry (Nathaniel Parker) to be hungry for a son and for a change in his bed. The only character who emerges as complex in the second play as all of the characters are in the first, is Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead). We see that she sees all, but we can’t tell whether she is conniving, opportunistic, or naïve. Brotherhead explains that she has “not quite made up [her] mind how ambitious Jane is or how much of a pawn she is.” It is not clear to the audience, either, but we enjoy the ambiguity. Holding it all together in the second play is Cromwell’s transformation from moral man to pragmatic man.
The portrayal of the characters in Wolf Hall is more brilliant than in Bring Up the Bodies. The characters are subtle; we can see that they are thinking something, but we cannot always figure out what their game is. Director Jeremy Herrin explains “I always want my actors to strive for some emotional authenticity, and that’s expensive because you’re exposed.” The expense is worth it. For those of us who love the novels and who love ambiguity, this is delightful.
However, during the intermission, I discovered through conversation with my neighbors that it was not delightful to all in the audience. Jeremy Herrin said that the company was “trying to understand again how the story works, and we’re trying to work out what’s important and what we can improve on.” The couple sitting next to me were also trying to figure out how the story worked. They explained that they had walked all over Manhattan that morning and had wanted to see a nice musical, perhaps Wicked, but their host, who was an historian, had bought tickets to these plays, and my new friends from Ohio, who had not read the books, did not understand what was going on. They complained that they were bored.
Their host, the historian, was delighted by Wolf Hall, but I understood his guests’ confusion. As a play, Wolf Hall lacks a center, a clear narrative arc, a purpose. It us history. It is interesting. The characters are compelling. But there is nothing holding it together as a play. The back of the program declares “Loyalty + Betrayal. Love + Lust. Honor + Corruption.” Yes, all of those are elements of these plays. But themes do not a drama make.
If you’re reading this review and this publication, you will probably want to see these plays. However, if given the chance to get tickets for your non-historian, non-Shakespearean, non-Mantel-fan friends, stick with Wicked.
Categories: Theater Reviews