The House of Tudor looks a lot like House of Cards in Wolf Hall, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage version of Hilary Mantel’s popular novels. Arriving on Broadway from the West End, this sprawling drama goes a long way toward breathing life into the annals of English dynastic history. The epic boasts a wonderfully Machiavellian schemer and enough intrigue to propel a couple of miniseries — which is lucky, because PBS airs a TV version of the books this month.
Performed in two parts (clocking in at nearly three hours apiece), Wolf Hall proudly wears its creators’ aspirations to a great history play. Wolf Hall is no Henriad, however. It prizes plot over character; the dialogue stays utterly telegraphic and the script possesses few lyrical qualities. (“It’s new times, new rules,” says power broker Thomas Cromwell, played by Ben Miles, in a typically flat line.) What this giant theatrical enterprise does have going for it — besides a truly impressive number of tunics — is a beautiful and revelatory dramatic symmetry.
Mike Poulton, who adapted Mantel’s two novels for this staging, stakes everything on the two-part structure, and it pays off. The first half (“Wolf Hall”) shows the lawyer Cromwell scrambling to secure a place for himself in the court of Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker), a vipers’ nest of religious conflicts, status-mongering, and romantic infidelities. The court obsesses over Henry’s desire to abandon his first wife, Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers), for Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), hoping to produce a male heir. We see things from Cromwell’s point of view, as this blacksmith’s son rises to become the king’s most trusted minister by engineering his boss’s annulment and remarriage. To get Anne into the monarch’s bed, Cromwell proposes, then enforces, England’s historic break from Rome and Catholicism, establishing the monarch as head of the Church of England.
In Part Two (“Bring Up the Bodies”), Henry seeks another annulment (from Anne) so he can indulge his desire for Jane Seymour, a lady-in-waiting. Cromwell hustles once again for his king, orchestrating another major, violent power shift and forging alliances with former enemies.
Wolf Hall‘s length is almost justified by the sweep of Cromwell’s mirrored actions. As the kingdom swings mightily in one direction and then reverses, we observe how law gets written and applied purely to serve the interests of those in power — however capricious and corrupt. Wolf Hall tracks Cromwell, an agent and instrument of power, as he becomes venal himself. Miles embraces the statesman’s sturdiness and resolve but projects little inner life. Director Jeremy Herrin delivers a mostly colorless staging but does invest — profitably — in two striking visual compositions in each half, showing a boat ferrying ousted courtiers to exile or death.
For an epic that hinges on Cromwell’s transformation, however, Wolf Hall supplies surprisingly few moments of introspection. If this were Shakespeare — or even Shakespearean — the drama would cultivate poetic perspectives on these events, as opposed to mere narrative information. (Less time with minor characters in Part Two might have opened up room for lyricism.) In the late going, an executioner’s scene brings to mind Hamlet’s encounter with the gravedigger, and anachronistic one-liners pander to Broadway’s groundlings. (“This could never happen in France!”) But for all the scope and Bardic trappings, to achieve the status of momentous drama, Wolf Hall needs more depth.