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New York City Theater

"Wolf Hall"
Winter Garden Theater

It’s a rough world out there. One wrong word and, whoosh!, off with your head. Or worse: you’re drawn and quartered – while alive. Watch every step, avoid the pitfalls of what might even hint at betrayal or disloyalty to ruler or religion bent on maintaining power and instilling fear.

This may sound like a chapter out of ISIS, but it’s “Wolf Hall,” the stinging two-part work from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Adapted by Mike Poulton from Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” the evening is crammed with intrigue, maneuverings, ambition and cruelty. Reflected is a society as melodramatic and savage as any pack of hungry animals, where “man is wolf to man.”

We’re at the 16th-century court of Henry VIII, a cold, stark place designed by Christopher Oram, with a cast of characters as dangerous as “a bag of serpents.” The king, wanting to shed his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, in order to marry bride number two, Anne Boleyn (he eventually had a total of six wives), is ruthless towards those who oppose his plan. Opposition even reaches from as far away as Rome, where the pope views divorce, especially from a Catholic queen, as anathema. But Henry will go to any lengths, even to starting his own religious branch, what becomes the Anglican Church of England. But he needs help.

Enter Thomas Cromwell the good cop / bad cop lawyer who rises as others fall. Seductive, self-aware, conniving, charming, this king’s henchman goes about his business with deadly quiet. No need to yell, no need to overplay his hand. As portrayed by Ben Miles, he’s all that more dangerous by insinuation.

“I have never known what is in your heart,” Cromwell says to Anne Boleyn, continuing with a not-so-veiled threat: “Do not presume to know what is in mine.” The line reveals the pluses and minuses of what is, in effect, a race through history.

In Mantel’s books, we do know more of what is in Cromwell’s heart, through interior monologues. The TV version, running concurrently with the stage adaptations, is heavier-handed, more stately, while the theater adaptations want to have it both ways. For the most part, the stage plays succeed in their headlong dramatic thrust, mowing down everyone in their path (though only cursorily touching side issues like the controversy about William Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible).

The acting, under the spacious direction of Jeremy Herrin combines realism with the size required for such august characters. Miles is penetrating as Cromwell, as are standouts Paul Jesson as Wolsey, Giles Taylor as Cranmer and Nathaniel Parker as Henry.

Yet much of the drama belongs to the two queens, a fierce Lucy Briers as Katharine and a snotty, vicious Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn. Waiting in the wings is wife number three, demure Jane Seymour. Her story, and the fate of Cromwell, will be tackled in “The Mirror and the Light,” Mantel’s conclusion to the trilogy. As Cromwell says, “There are no endings. They are all beginnings.” Worth waiting for.

--David A. Rosenberg
April 21, 2015

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