As the cast of Wolf Hall, Part One comes on stage and does a celebratory dance, the musicians play a piece that starts with five very familiar notes.
They’re identical to the opening of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
And indeed the Royal Shakespeare Company is doing just that, in its mammoth two-part, five-and-a-half hour extravaganza that offers 23 actors in 43 roles and tight direction from Jeremy Herrin.
It’s English history all over again: Henry VIII needs a son if England is to stay a world power, but his wife Katherine of Aragon, five-and-a half years his senior, can’t give him one. So Henry finds the ten-years-younger Anne Boleyn, whom he fully expects will provide him with what he and England needs.
It’s a story that’s been told seven times on Broadway in the last 114 years and plenty more times on film. So why should we be interested now?
Because Mike Poulson’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s 672-page take on the biggest story of 1525 continues to show us sides of the historical characters we’ve not often seen. Henry (the estimable Nathaniel Parker) is lovestruck in a major way. “If you take Anne from me, I’ll die,” he moans – and means it.
Although he’s King, he isn’t above being jealous of any potential rivals for Anne’s affections. What’s more, we see that he wavers on ditching Catholicism until he admits that “Anne says I shouldn’t bow to Rome.”
Anne (the mesmerizing Lydia Leonard) seems less enamored of her new husband, but she seizes her chance to become an emboldened and empowered social-climbing tigress. We learn that Richard Nixon wasn’t the first to keep an enemies list. Anne also isn’t above slapping Jane Seymour (the modest Leah Brotherhead), unaware that she’s assaulting her successor. Even after Anne gives birth to “a mere girl,” she’s fearless and believes herself invincible.
As this unfolds, Lucy Briers ensures that deposed Queen Katherine never loses her dignity. Even near the end of her reign, she pulls herself up and insists “I was married to England in my infancy, and I will be married to England when I die.”
Meanwhile, Cardinal Wolsey (the raspy-voiced Paul Jesson) and his profane language and imagery leads us to believe that he chose the clergy as an occupation, not a vocation. And yet, when he fears that he’ll soon lose his power, he frankly worries about his 200 servants who’ll soon be unemployed with possibly few prospects. That finally humanizes him.
After Henry disposes of Wolsey, he’s contrite enough to admit “I miss the cardinal; he’s been like a father to me,” he says – no pun intended. Henry is less enamored of Archbishop Warham (Jesson again; the more clerics change, the more they remain the same). Warham, who was close to an octogenarian at this point in history, is shown as too aged for the job. And yet, he’s not old enough to have forgotten his high principles. Both Mantel and Poulson remind us that there is no expiration date on a good man’s ideals.
As for (future St.) Thomas More (the unctuous John Ramm), the solution he gives Henry for wanting a son is “Good men pray for it.”
At the start of the show, we see that he is less “A Man for All Seasons” than a man who’s all for seasoning his enemies before grilling them and seeing them killed.
It’s really Thomas Cromwell’s play, and Ben Miles, who’s onstage for an enormous percentage of it, never lets us forget it. The “boy from Putney” who once made a living as a moneylender is quiet in the way he rises to prominence while deftly avoiding traps along the way. He’s also the first to see potential in Jane Seymour, which is how the Part One ends, two hours and 45 minutes after it began.
Plenty of performers get entrance applause, but the torrent that the cast received when it came out for Part Two was testament to what they’d already earned in Part One. And yet, despite their herculean efforts and just-s-good staging from Herrin, Part Two isn’t as compelling. The different shadings in the characters now seem less surprising and we have more time to realize that we know how it’s all going to end.
Still, Poulson does a good job of making matters resonate even if you miss Part One. Perhaps the only line that suffers is when Cromwell is called “Putney Boy.” So much is made of that in the first half that the insult-cum-rebuke doesn’t pack the punch without one’s hearing it beforehand. But Part Two does offer a harrowing scene in which the powers-that-be try to match up the right heads with the bodies that they’d just had beheaded.
Christopher Oram gives no set to speak of, and relies on lighting designers Paule Constable (who did Part One) and David Plater (who lit Part Two) to create moods that keep us from feeling cheated. Oram, however, has mistakenly put the men in costumes so similar that telling one character from another isn’t as easy as it could have been.
Wolf Hall carries with it an inadvertent timeliness. A play that dismisses the idea that a woman could possibly rule a country opened only three days before Hillary Rodham Clinton declared herself a presidential candidate. The story of a government that wants to impose a specific religion on its subjects arrives at a time when so many conservative Christians want to do the same.
Theatergoers who can’t afford both parts (and here’s guessing that that means most of the population) will at best opt for Part One; will anyone choose to go to the second half – also two hours and forty-five minutes — without seeing the first? Arguably, those who are in town for one night and want a taste of it very well might come in “in the middle.” But there’s a reason why Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One is done far more often than Henry IV, Part Two.