Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) and Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) in Wolf Hall. Photo: Photo: Johan Persson
“Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.” So goes the rhyme that lists the fate (in order) of the six wives of Henry VIII. Based on the number of books and films that have been made about them and the rest of the family, it appears that we (including myself) just can’t get enough of those crazy Tudors. And so this history nerd found herself last month at the opening night of a Broadway play that once again tells the story of King Henry and the tragic story of his first two wives.
Wolf Hall: Parts I and II (it’s so long the play is broken into two parts) is based on Hilary Mantel’s books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (as is the recent PBS series). It differs from other accounts of this oft-told tale by making the focus of the play neither king nor queen but a bureaucrat—Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief adviser. This commoner, a “butcher boy from Putney,” rose to power in Henry’s court by orchestrating two of the most important events in his King’s life—the divorce from his first wife and the beheading of his second.
The action takes place on a bare, darkened stage with a concrete back wall embedded with a large cross. Fire sometimes rises from the floor. Occasionally a piece of furniture will appear. Part I opens with the Royal Shakespeare Company cast on stage performing a dance. Among them are Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) and Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) along with their friends and enemies.
Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) with members of his court in Wolf Hall. Photo: Johan Persson
We soon meet Cromwell and Cardinal Woolsey (Paul Jesson), and learn of Cromwell’s high regard for the older man who is not only a mentor but also a father figure to him. We watch as Cromwell’s position and power at court rises until he’s the only man that the king can trust. Unhappy with Catherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers), a wife who cannot bear him a son, Henry wants to get rid of her so he can marry a younger woman, Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard). Can’t Cromwell help his King?
Cromwell sets out to accommodate his ruler’s wishes. Soon Henry is breaking from the church and getting a divorce. Catherine is banished to the countryside and replaced by the dark haired Anne. All too soon Anne, who has a sharp tongue and opinions about everything, turns out to be a disappointment when she gives birth to a girl (the future Elizabeth I). Part I ends with a young blonde woman (Leah Brotherhead) on stage stating, “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour.” A portent of things to come in Part II.
Death is all around Cromwell in Wolf Hall starting with the sudden loss of his wife and daughters from the sweating sickness and the death of Woolsey, hastened by his fall from grace with the King. And then there is the execution of Cromwell’s frenemy, Thomas More, the man who in real life achieved sainthood by refusing to denounce the church, is depicted here in a very unsaintlike manner and Cromwell, in a reversal of the normal, is the hero.
In Part II, the death toll increases and so do the ghosts who come and go throughout the play. Cromwell’s beloved wife drifts by a few times but Woolsey’s ghost sticks around and has conversations with Cromwell. Even the King gets a visit from the ghost of his dead brother. Death, it would seem, does not mean seeing the last of some people.
Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) in Wolf Hall. Photo: Johan Persson
If Part I is a bit crowded with information and setting the stage for what’s to come, Part II runs at a rapid pace, with Cromwell finally getting his revenge. The man who has mastered the art of fading into the shadows, who has stood quietly by, watching and listening, puts his plans into action when the King, grown weary of Anne, claims that she bewitched him and that she must go. Cromwell is only too happy to oblige. In the process of getting rid of Anne, Cromwell eliminates his enemies as well, setting up the men who lampooned Woolsey after his death with charges of treason. Cromwell, it seems, never forgets. Anne and the men are beheaded, leading the way for the King to wed the mousy Jane Seymour. Cromwell has succeeded but at what cost?
Ben Miles does a fine job as Cromwell, winning the audience's sympathy and getting some laughs (there’s actually a surprising amount of humour in the play) before he turns menacing and starts settling scores. Nathaniel Parker, who I’ve always been fond of, is an excellent Henry, with the presence and stature of a king while also showing Henry at times to be nothing more than a spoiled child. Paul Jesson as Woolsey is a standout, often stealing scenes from his fellow actors. If there is a disappointment it's that I found Lydia Leonard as Anne to be a bit too shrill, often shrieking her lines although she redeems herself at the end.
Wolf Hall is long, almost six hours if you see both parts on the same day (as I did), but it’s well worth it. These are some familiar characters that you won't mind spending time with.
Wolf Hall is at the Winter Garden Theatre. For more information, visit here.