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By (April 8, 2015) 6 Comments

“Wolf Hall” Parts One & Two
By Hilary Mantel
Adapted by Mike Poultonrscwolfhall
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Royal Shakespeare Society, 2015

The past is a slippery thing, especially where Tudors are concerned. The grandest, brashest, sexiest, and most melodramatic of all English dynasties has been held up as a cultural foil to their native country ever since the moment they slipped the scene. From Shakespeare to Showtime network, they have been both cultural ubiquities and cultural changelings, ever transforming in popular memory to illuminate some present fetish or fixation (for Shakespeare, it was the contrast between Tudor boorishness and Stuart class; for Showtime, it was the contrast between Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s face and Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s abs).

The latest star in the firmament of Tudor reinvention is Hilary Mantel, whose deeply absorbing and justly lauded novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies retell the story of Thomas Cromwell: the scheming, brilliant, and much-maligned hatchet man of Henry VIII who oversaw (among other things) the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. Both books now arrive on Broadway in the the form of a two-part, six-hour theatrical adaptation, courtesy of playwright Mike Poulton and the Royal Shakespeare Company, who previously oversaw well-regarded runs in Stratford and London. So, then: what are Tudors telling us now?

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies take place amid a backdrop of cold stone and steel bars. The impression is of a prison cell, long before the Tower of London makes its official appearance. Inside the cell, the players of Henry VIII’s court scheme, flatter, and make snide remarks behind one another’s backs. This is dialogue-driven drama: there is little in the way of visual dazzle to draw the audience’s attention away from the spoken words propelling the events on stage; appropriate since, in this king’s court, a stray word can lead to a head on the block. “For God’s sake, Gregory! People have gone to the Tower for saying less,” Thomas Wyatt warns Cromwell’s slow-witted son after one ill-chosen remark. These plays are, among other things, an extended lesson in the truth of that statement.


Luckily, given the high importance placed here on words, Poulton and Mantel excel at quick, biting exchanges. Even at six hours, compressing the entirety of Mantel’s novels into a live performance requires an impressive economy of narrative, much of it the result of dizzying, rapid-fire dialogue. In Wolf Hall the novel, Henry’s turn toward Protestantism and away from the Church in Rome spans a sizable portion of the book. Here, it occurs almost over the course of one whirlwind chat with Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer:


I’d preside in the Church courts?

THOMAS [Cromwell]

Who else?


Could I bring in my own case and sit judgement on it?


Subject to your own conscience.


Ah, but could I grant my own divorce?


Your Archbishop could.


Warham? I doubt that. But when God gathers Warham to his bosom…


A third of the wealth of England is in Church hands. Would it not be more useful to the Crown? Christ did not bestow on his followers grants or offices of state. When the gold we send to Rome is diverted into your treasury–


No…I’m not sure. But…could it be…that this may at last…? I must go to Anne. No word of this to Thomas More — go no further until we have discussed it with the Lady Anne. Cranmer — come and argue your case.

wolfhallElsewhere, years melt together through an almost impressionistic staging: Cromwell’s wife’s exit off to bed segues quietly into her funeral; Anne Boleyn’s transition from Lady to Queen to mother occurs over the course of a single scene.

Clever and effective as this staging is, the play ultimately belongs to its characters, and none stands so central as Cromwell himself, here played with icy restraint by Ben Miles. This presents an interesting challenge for the play: the novels, though narrated in the third person, are filtered entirely through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Even early in the action, when Cromwell is little more than minor hanger-on in the Tudor court, he is constantly front-and-center in the reader’s mind: his thoughts, reflections, and opinions color everything that happens and every character we meet.

The theater cannot replicate this, even though (in a remarkable feat of sustained performance by Miles) Cromwell is physically present nearly every minute of the show. Instead, he largely blends into the background during the first part of the play, leaving a vacuum filled by other personalities — none larger or more enjoyable than Paul Jesson’s Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey struts across Part I of Wolf Hall like a crass, charming peacock. He’s gleefully corrupt and corrupting, and his scenes are unfailingly snappy and entertaining. Here he is inquiring into rumors rumors surrounding the latest face at court:


What do you know of this Boleyn girl — not the King’s mistress — the flat-chested one?


Anne Boleyn? Not much. Father married up — old Norfolk’s sister — he’s as cunning as a fox.


I know he is — I open all his letters. The girl Anne was brought up in France — now she’s in London — setting her cap at the Earl of Northumberland’s son — Harry Percy —


She’s wasting her time. Young Percy’s marrying Old Talbot’s daughter. It’s all fixed.


Which is why the King’s ordered me to put a stop to their nonsense. ‘Oh, ‘Arry Percy, ‘Arry Percy — ‘ow I lurv ‘Arry’s ‘art, ‘an ‘is ‘awks ‘an ‘is ‘ounds, ‘an ‘is ‘ole hearldom.’ It’s no laughing matter. Over there — take notes. I want this on the record. (Suddenly bellowing.) Thomas Boleyn! Come in here.

Other characters are drawn with equally bold lines: here is King Henry (Nathaniel Parker), as touchy and insecure as an overgrown child, pacing the halls in his nightgown and worrying over bad dreams. Here is Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), all raw, naked ambition, with her fits of rage and condescending, faux-French accent. (Less successful, from a dramatic perspective, is John Ramm’s Thomas More. Written and played as a simpering, obnoxious bully, it’s not only inevitable from his first scene that he will die; it’s entirely implausible that anybody would have allowed him to live this long already.) Next to these technicolor personalities, Cromwell seems all the more bland and indecipherable, a foreshadowing of the modern England to come. Wolsey’s death leaves England a less colorful place, figuratively and literally: not for nothing is his Cardinal red replaced, in Part II, with muted shades of brown and gray.

Thus, the story of Wolf Hall Part II: Bring Up the Bodies is the story of Cromwell’s rise and Old England’s fall: the lively, if primitive, England of crude Wolsey and pious More fades into a new world of technocratic efficiency and ruthless rigidity. Increasingly, expressions of love, desire, and especially religion become signs of weakness, flaws to be exploited by controlled and cunning men like Cromwell and his posse. Sincere conviction (particularly in matters of God) is the province of a man-child like Henry or a maniac like More. Cromwell, by contrast, makes a virtue of bureaucratic restraint: “I don’t want this country to be like my father’s house in Putney — shouting and fighting all the time,” he says at the end of Part I. “I don’t want children growing up on the street. I want it to be a place where everybody knows what he has to do — and feels safe doing it.” The irony, of course, is that nothing could be less safe or predictable than the world Cromwell is busily bringing about. His court will be nothing if not terrifying and unexpected; his “enlightened” religion will be every inch as savage and intolerant as More’s Popish faith. Cromwell thinks he is bringing England to salvation. In small, unnoticed steps, he is dragging it to Hell.


Here, Mantel’s novels possess an advantage that the theatrical medium can’t effectively match. By presenting Cromwell’s actions through his own perspective, and supplying his own justifications for every cutthroat maneuver he makes, the novels make the reader a willing accomplice to Cromwell’s crimes. Convinced by the authorial voice, we (like Cromwell) only gradually come to recognize that our hero has become the villain. In a wonderful scene from Wolf Hall not present in the stage version, Cromwell regards Holbein’s famous portrait of him, and, appalled, tells his son, “I look like a murderer.” “Didn’t you know?” is the deadpan reply.

If Poulton’s plays can’t match that sort of literary irony, they are nonetheless powerful and unflinching in depicting Cromwell’s slow degradation. The key scene comes just before Cromwell instigates the interrogation (and eventual execution) of the supposed lovers of Anne Boleyn. Confronted by the ghost of his mentor Wolsey, he has the following exchange:


I see what you’re up to — turning over stones, prodding rotten logs — waiting to see what crawls out.


Have you any better ideas?


Thomas…You’re in our world now. You’re walking with the dead. Don’t lose your soul for Henry.


Did you lose yours?


Can’t you smell the scorching?

bringupthebodiesA moment later, Cromwell hesitates, staring silently into a fire (extended silences are one of the virtues this production brings to the story, impossible to replicate on the page). Then, he carries on toward murder, his soul consigned to the same sorry fate as all courtiers past.

There is one more point that bears mentioning, though it is, by nature, a speculative one. It is about the mutability of history, and the ways we can and cannot trust the past — even the past we’ve only just seen acted out in front of us. Late in the play, as the the noose slowly tightens around Anne Boleyn, King Henry instructs Cromwell to produce evidence that Anne had secretly been married to another man, Harry Percy, prior to becoming Queen. Years earlier, at the King’s instruction, Cromwell had argued publicly that such a marriage had not taken place, and now King and counselor have the following exchange:


Do what you have to do. I will back you. But be very secret. I don’t want…



You don’t want history to make a liar of you.


Before your Council you had me state you never had to do with Mary Boleyn — while you sat there and just nodded. You removed all impediments — Mary Boleyn — Harry Percy — you just swept them aside. Now times have changed — our requirements have changed — and the facts must change behind us…

It is a weaselly statement, to be sure: the words of a scoundrel about to behave very badly. But they are also words that Cromwell sincerely believes. History, facts, the past itself — these are protean things, taking on whatever shape is assigned to them by the here and now. And so, because this is a story told through Cromwell’s eyes, there is perhaps reason for us to question the validity of what we have seen.

3Take Thomas More, for example. Is he really as grossly, one-dimensionally vile as his portrayal suggests? Or is this just the character assigned to him by Cromwell, the victor in their political chess match? Or Anne Boleyn: is she a Machiavellian parvenue? A rightful Queen? A debauched adulteress? Different scenes produce different answers, as circumstances require. Or, biggest of all, take King Henry VIII. The play, we’ve seen, casts him as a mercurial, infantile prince, a man utterly helpless in the face of events if not for the cool advice of his man Cromwell. But, then, that’s what Cromwell would want him to be, isn’t it? History, after all, tells a very different story. Henry, in the end, was no political neophyte: he outlived and outwitted Cromwell, as he did each of his ambitious courtiers and rivals in turn. Perhaps what we’ve seen here is only the impression of a man whose vision of history will, soon enough, receive a sudden and shocking revision. The third volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy (which will, in time, receive an RSC adaptation of its own) will be entitled The Mirror and the Light. The name suggests illumination and reflection on what’s come before. We, and Cromwell, may have reason to change the facts behind us once more.

Maybe, then, the ever-changing face of the Tudors is their only permanent quality. They remind us, each time they reappear on the stage of popular culture, that the past can look like whatever it pleases us most to see. History, eventually, will make liars of us all. Wolf Hall is not an easy play. It does not give its audience easy answers, or allow us to surrender the responsibility of thought and judgment. But it is a good play, a troubling one, and one that anyone who has ever questioned the past would do well to see.

Zach Rabiroff lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.