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If Henry VIII can get his Reformation, why not Thomas Cromwell? In works from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons to Showtime’s The Tudors, this royal consigliere pops up from the shadows as the Machiavellian architect of Henry’s first divorce, from Catherine of Aragon, and as a chief advocate of the Church of England’s split with Rome. He is usually the villain, the unsmiling grump of that famous Hans Holbein portrait in New York’s Frick Collection. But author Hillary Mantel flipped the script in her award-winning 2009 novel Wolf Hall, the first in a trilogy that sought to recast Cromwell as a principled figure of reason and decency — or at least as an antihero in the modern mold of Tony Soprano or Walter White.
Her revisionist, unrepentantly anti-Catholic portrait has captured the imagination of some of the finest minds in British entertainment in recent years. Though Mantel is still at work on the third and final volume of her Cromwell saga, producers have rushed to adapt the first two books (Bring Up the Bodies appeared in 2012). A six-hour miniseries just began airing on PBS, with Mark Rylance in the central role. And the Royal Shakespeare Company has brought its magisterial six-hour, two-play adaptation to Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre following a successful London run last year.
Ben Miles, who starred in the Friends-like British sitcom Coupling (as the sex-crazed Joey type), appears in virtually every scene as Cromwell, transforming the would-be bad guy into a stolid, sympathetic up-from-the-bootstraps type who defied his humble beginnings as an alehouse keeper’s son to become one of the most powerful men in the British realm. Miles’ Cromwell finds a like-minded mentor in Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (the fine Paul Jesson), a blacksmith’s son who rose to become Lord Chancellor. Wolsey’s fall from grace — and Cromwell’s loyalty to a fellow low-born striver — becomes the focal point for Wolf Hall, setting Cromwell on a course for revenge even as he rises ever higher within the inner circle of King Henry (Nathaniel Parker), here depicted as an overage frat boy whose loyalties are as fleeting as his whims about female companionship.
Mike Poulton has done a deft job of adapting and streamlining Mantel’s novels, which are dense door-stoppers rich with historical detail and, in the case of Wolf Hall, a 98-name character list to help readers keep track of the confusing glut of Thomases, Henrys, and Marys. In one of Part 1’s wryer moments, Thomas More (the suitably priggish John Ramm) addresses three other Thomases by first name, then adds a greeting for a Charles, the Duke of Suffolk (Nicholas Boulton).
But there is an awful lot of plot — and plotting — to unfold, and woe to the theatergoer whose mind starts to wander. Occasionally, one longs for a monologue from Cromwell, to hear his thoughts as he evolves from a decrier of More’s willingness to torture apostates to a torturer himself when he seeks to undo Henry’s ill-fated marriage to Anne Boleyn (a deliciously diva-ish Lydia Leonard).
Thankfully, the scenes with Anne and the other queens (and would-be queens) are the show’s strongest, welcome and kicky distractions from all the boys’ talk about taxes and wars and diplomatic machinations. It helps that the women are magnificently costumed by Christopher Oram, and that they get some of the best lines. “The Pope shall learn his place,” says Anne, bristling that the annulment of Henry first marriage to Katherine of Aragon does not seem to be forthcoming. “I am the woman to show him what his place is!” Or there’s Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead), expressing surprise that Cromwell won’t propose to her after showering so much attention on her on the king’s behalf. “I’m too old for you, Jane — I could be your father,” Cromwell says, to which she replies, “Could you? I’d no idea. My mother’s never mentioned it.” Brotherhead, who also doubles as Henry’s rejected eldest daughter, Mary, captures both the initial wide-eyed reticence as well as the increasing confidence that comes with royal attentions.
As with many an RSC production, the physical look of Wolf Hall is stunning. In addition to his period-perfect costumes, Oram has designed a versatile modernist set, with cement blocks forming a St. George’s cross upstage and a Sol Lewitt-like cubist lattice sculpture looming overhead. Thanks to the truly remarkable lighting design by Paule Constable and David Plater, the space transforms into council rooms, cathedrals, bed chambers, and boats in an instant. Under Jeremy Herrin’s direction, there is a cinematic quality to the way that the many short scenes blend into each other. But the striking visual tableaux still carry the visceral energy of live theater. And Wolf Hall proves to be a crackling historical pageant that is a feast for the eye as well as the brain. Grade: A–