Religious beheadings are back in fashion, and not just in the Middle East. If you stroll down to the Winter Garden Theater on 51st and Broadway in New York, you can see six of them in one evening at the Wolf Hall plays—as well as two of the best new productions to hit Broadway in years.Originally a pair of novels by Hillary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies trace the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII, and the downfall of his enemies Thomas More and Anne Boleyn. Both novels won the Man Booker Prize (“the British Pulitzer”), a feat no previous writer had accomplished, either for that prize or for the Pulitzer.A third novel, The Mirror and the Light, is due soon to round out the trilogy; meanwhile, Mike Poulton, a noted translator of foreign and classical dramas, was commissioned to adapt the extant novels into a pair of plays, directed by Jeremy Herrin and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. They are designed to be viewed successively: each part lasts about 3 hours, with a 3 hour interval for dinner in between, although they can also be seen individually on separate nights. After successful tours in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, the RSC has brought them to Broadway (playing through July 5). The popular BBC miniseries picked up by PBS rounds things out. All in all, Mantel’s highbrow historical fiction bids fair to become the latest British cultural franchise to storm America’s shores.But back to the blood. Like the violence in the Middle East, the beheadings at the court of Henry VIII sprang from multiple motives: political, personal, and sexual, as well as religious. Also like them, they arose at a time when information technology, political instability, and a fundamentalist, populist understanding of religion were overturning the established order.But unlike today’s violence in the Middle East or the wars of religion in 16th-century continental Europe, the violence of the Henrican court was deeply personal—which is why from Shakespeare and Schiller to the present it has made such good drama. Rather than being settled by a series of indiscriminate slaughters, the religious questions were decided by the peculiarly English method of backstabbing, sex, and judicial murder perpetrated by and on a small court comprised mostly of cousins. Now that’s drama.And so’s Wolf Hall. That’s primarily to the credit of Ben Miles, who plays Thomas Cromwell. Far from being one of the Henrican court’s many cousins, Cromwell is the son of an abusive, drunken blacksmith who works his way up in the new way (for the 16th century): sailing off to Europe, working as a condottiere in France, becoming a banker in Renaissance Florence, and then a wool trader in the Low Countries. By the time we meet him, he’s 42, back in England, and acting as factotum to Cardinal Wolsey, Chancellor of England. Sophisticated and subtle but seemingly plainspoken, Miles’s Cromwell manages the rare feat of being both brash and suave. On the insular set surrounding him at court, he has more than just a leg up; he has a whole body. As Cromwell says to Sir Thomas More in his moment of triumph, “You never saw this coming, did you? You thought it would be the other way around.”The first half of Part I is likely to strike you one of two ways, depending on your depth of knowledge of the period. For those steeped in the history, it’s a painful abbreviation of a period of pivotal years; for those of a less scholarly bent, it’s a welcome refresher. Whatever its merits as history, however, Part I ably sets the frame for the rest of the drama. Mantel and Poulton write Paul Jesson’s Cardinal Wolsey not only as a “lost leader” who might have sorted out Henry’s marital troubles without separating from the Catholic Church, but as a second father to Cromwell.As a result, Cromwell takes Wolsey’s disgrace and death deeply to heart. Seemingly unconnected events—particularly the choice of the men brought down with Anne Boleyn—flow from his desire to be revenged on those who harmed his master. As unlikely (and impossible to prove) as this is as history, it’s effective and compelling as a unifying dramatic device. Fortunately, the authors are able to harmonize it with other, more obvious motives, such as Henry’s amorous appetites.The effect of the device is strengthened by Poulton’s decision to adapt Cromwell’s vivid memories of the dead in the novels as ghosts onstage. (Here, due praise should go to Herrin and lighting designers Paule Constable and David Plater, who bathe Wolsey—and on occasion, Cromwell’s late wife Liz, Thomas More, and others—in pale blue light, effectively straddling a thin line between kitsch and sentimentality.) This allows the grandfatherly Jesson to vocalize Cromwell’s internal political decisions in a charming, relatable manner throughout the plays—not just as he instructs his protégé in the first act.Once the Cardinal has shuffled off his mortal coil, the summary portion of the night comes to an end. The second half of Part I focuses on the fall and eventual execution of Thomas More, Wolsey’s successor as Chancellor. This portion of the novel and play has inevitably drawn comparisons to Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. That comparison has been ably examined elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Mantel, who hated her experiences at Catholic school and has since declared the Church “cruel” and “not an institution for respectable people,” is not impressed by the martyr.Poulton’s dramatization of More takes a couple of shortcuts with the politician/saint that don’t work—for instance, treating him as a politically hungry hypocrite rather than someone who was, in Lacey Baldwin Smith’s phrase, a “compromise candidate” trying, within the limit of his conscience, to duck. The books do a much more thorough character assassination, hammering, among other things, More’s relationship with his wife. And both highlight a personal asceticism and openness to torturing heretics common to the time. But Mantel’s portrayal of More is less important for what it says about her view of Catholicism than for what it shows about her understanding of Thomas Cromwell.Mantel’s Cromwell is the patron saint of modernity. The characters who surround him are narrow and extreme: either barely educated medieval relics clinging to outdated feudal privilege (Norfolk, half the court), lust-animated dilettantes (Henry, the other half of the court), or religious fanatics in the smallest sense of the word—men, like her More, driven by a blind adherence to tradition and by intense, misplaced guilt. Above them all strides the master administrator Cromwell, broadly but temperately religious, full of tact and self control, witty but reserved, and willing to break a few eggs to make an omelet—but mindful not to torture, aware of where to draw the lines.There are of course grains of truth to this. The age from which the Tudors were emerging was not merely medieval but in many ways half-savage. The Wolf Hall plays capture this state of affairs better than more gauzy-eyed fictionalizations; in particular, they do a fuller measure of justice to the all-consuming, highly personal venality of Henry VIII than even the better Tudor dramas, which usually either turn the judicial wife-murderer into either a romantic or hide his personal role behind the guise of law and order. But we moderns deceive ourselves if we think that the solutions to religious extremism are “commonsense” or obvious. Mantel and Poulton’s Cromwell speaks of concepts that won’t be invented—or discovered—for decades and centuries: of freedom of the press, or even income tax. Most of the work in between was bloody and in many cases not at all intended toward peaceful, liberal ends. It was the work of figures as diverse as the Lutherans (and oddly enough, we don’t see one true-believing Protestant preacher in the whole play), More in the Tower, or John Milton gazing back on 130 years of religious strife that in fact lie between Cromwell and freedom of the press. Cromwell the cunning court survivor is realistic enough; Cromwell the moderate is a fantasy that allows us to indulge in feelings of superiority to our forebears.Although Mantel does her best to conflate the cause of Protestantism with “modern” secular reasonableness, Cromwell’s bargain is not one any rational modern would take. He won’t torture you for your beliefs, but he’ll expect you to sign loyalty oaths or face execution; to convert from your existing beliefs; and to indulge in an unprecedented orgy of cultural destruction. (When it came to demolishing art, the Dissolution of the Monasteries made the Taliban look like tyros.)If this were the only notion at the heart of Mantel and Poulton’s drama—that all eyes not blinded by religious bigotry can plainly see the way to moderation—it would not rise above the level of screed. Fortunately, that is not so. Thomas More is but one of Cromwell’s enemies; Cromwell’s muscular moderation but one side of a complex character.Viewed as a single, six-hour play, Wolf Hall is an epic-length dramatic achievement, similar to an unabridged production of Hamlet or a Wagner opera. Like those works, it relies on moderation of intensity to allow the actors and the audience to make it through to the end—and to allow for enough build-up, without release, for a truly cathartic climax. If the cast sold out emotionally on the death of More, or of Wolsey, important as those are, how could the audience bear it when, after wading through that sea of blood, Anne Boleyn stands before us, wholly undone, her eyes shimmering with tears, ready to be lead to execution? What would be left?Comic relief is essential to such emotional moderation—and the play is consistently funny. In Cromwell’s household, his French servant Christophe (Pierro Niel-Mee) is the comic foil; at the court, a series of nattering nincompoops keep things rolling. Connecting all the action, though, is Poulton’s tight, economical dialogue. “Have you ever heard the term, ‘naked ambition’?” one of Anne’s “frenemies” among the court ladies remarks drily to Cromwell. Only once does the show’s love of comedy get the better of it—in Part I, when the dignified denunciation of the ancient Archbishop of London is overshadowed by hammy physical comedy as he staggers under the weight of an oversized Bible. Usually, however, the humor is well-timed, and keeps the increasingly high stakes game each character is playing from veering into hysteria. The pacing, coordinated by Sian Williams, across a proscenium-thrust stage that’s at once minimalist and manifold in its possibilities, designed by Christopher Oram—is also vital in modulating the drama, allowing the actors to modulate the pace between the madcap mirth of a Christmas party and pin-drop intensity of a deadly interrogation.Part II foregrounds the pair of second leads who do much to make this a deep drama, and to set it apart from its historical competitors. The first is Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn. Not the coquettish romantic victim she is often dramatized as, this Anne is a Cromwellian alter ego, a crafty player and worthy rival to the protagonist, who like Cromwell scrapes and claws her way to the top, using what she has—and in the end, who’s just not good enough. If Cromwell says to More, you never saw me coming, then he says to Anne, you would have done the same thing.Leonard’s bitchy, scheming, and yet still alluring Anne is assisted by a great surrounding cast in the court, particularly Nicholas Shaw and John Ramm as two of her accused lovers, William Brereton and Harry Norris. Poulton and Herrin do an excellent job of driving up the plausibility of the rumors that surround Henry’s second Queen, while simultaneously not committing to any of them as indisputable truth. The climactic interrogations in the Tower show the full force of the play’s psychological intensity.Ranged behind it all is Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker). If Cromwell is the beau ideal of the administrator, Henry’s passions and position are what give the minister the force to bring modernity into being. At times the image of a refined, Renaissance monarch, other times scheming, sly, and self-pitying, and then in a flash wrought into terrifying rages, Parker fully embodies the id-driven King.Poulton does a good job keeping in the foreground the horrors of the recently concluded War of the Roses (arguably significantly bloodier per capita for England than World War I), which in effect licenses Henry’s excesses. Better a century of tyranny than another day of anarchy, and nothing is more important than a stable succession. At least, this is how Henry’s courtiers console themselves as the man at the top is consumed by his appetites—lust, power, pride, and money.So too descends the man who enables him, Cromwell. At each step, Cromwell’s moves seem easy to make, natural enough—and yet, at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, the protagonist who started off as something of an idealist is reduced to arguing, “Wreckage is useful isn’t it? It can be fashioned into all sorts of new things. Ask any dweller by the shore.”Perhaps Poulton’s supreme achievement is structuring the plays so that on the one hand each part separately, and on the other the pair taken as a whole, achieve climax, catharsis, and resolution—and yet he still has left open the possibility, indeed the expectation that nemesis is yet to come for the hero. The stage is still set for a third play, in other words, to come in and complete Cromwell’s journey.Leaving Wolf Hall and Miles’ virtuoso performance behind, I was physically drained, uplifted, and troubled at once. And I was hungry for more. Bring on The Mirror and the Light.
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Published on: May 7, 2015
The TudorsA Wolf Eat Wolf World
Wolf Hall: sex, religion, violence, and why the Tudors still captivate 500 years later.