One of 2015’s most exciting theatrical events thus far is an unsentimental period epic that takes the received wisdom of history and gives it several twists. At the center of the show – working the levers of power while trying to balance morals against expediency – is a lowborn but politically brilliant hero, constantly reminded of his unpromising origins by those around him. I’m not talking about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (that transfers to Broadway in July), but Wolf Hall: Parts One & Two.
Despite its title, there are more species than just Canis lupus lurking along the margins of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s triumphant, blockbuster adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor-history novels. It’s a regular illuminated manuscript up there – quivering rabbits standing in for doomed courtiers, clucking hens supplied by gossipy ladies-in-waiting, and warthogs and goats in the form of odious, snobby lords. So many beasts, and one man their zookeeper: Thomas Cromwell.
As cunningly played by Ben Miles (last here as a tongue-tied veterinarian in The Norman Conquests), Cromwell is at once cipher, savior and demon over nearly six hours of wrangling between pope and crown, and then within the vipers’ nest that was the court of King Henry VIII (the splendid Nathaniel Parker). As reviewers of the novels noted, Mantel took a figure most historians regard as a cold-blooded architect of the modern totalitarian state – a Machiavel who engineered the downfalls of Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn – and imbued him with humane motivations and sympathetic depth. It’s a bit like revealing what an enlightened mensch Senator Joe McCarthy really was.
Given the long shadow of English history plays, there are faint but unmistakable textual echoes of Shakespeare's two great tetralogies. Prince Hal’s “I do, I will,” about the inevitability of banishing Falstaff, becomes King Henry’s “I am, I will,” telling Cromwell that he can indeed form his own opinions. But the comparison is double-edged; as much as the fact-crammed pageantry of Wolf Hall maintains admirable clarity and pacing, it often lacks the sudden burst of lyricism or philosophical depth you find in the Bard. In other words, I’d have taken more poetry over plot.
Still, as a fast-paced political thriller, it is fiendishly engaging, and director Jeremy Herrin’s 23-member corps skillfully slips in and out of multiple roles. Parker’s King Henry is finely modulated over the course of the plays, transforming from a hale-and-hearty young buck to a more corrupt and ruthless eater-up of friends. Lydia Leonard’s petulant, feline Anne Boleyn justifies both her rapid rise and fast fall. Paul Jesson jigs jovially among wily patriarchs – from a politic Cardinal Wolsey to future queen Jane Seymour’s pandering dad. As a character who is meant to fade into the background, Cromwell’s loyal clerk Rafe, Joshua Silver is ever-present, watchful, recording. And as Cromwell, Miles can make holding your tongue seem like high drama. As Mantel fills in the blanks of history, so Miles fills his character’s conflicted motives with intelligence and moral purpose, however ugly they get.
Together these marvelous actors create a little England populating Christopher Oram’s grimly gray set, a blank slate that swiftly becomes a cardinal’s office, Henry’s court, the Thames or a tavern. Always looming against the back wall are four concrete square slabs, not quite touching edges. In the negative space their sides create, we see a constant cross. It’s an eloquent metaphor for this world: grace, pity, peace, God – all exist as potentials in the cracks of a stony, material world.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic for Time Out New York, and an early career playwright and opera librettist.