At first, I regretted that the crowd was shouting louder, wasn’t giving out the sort of orgasmic screams you hear at the opera after an aria, because I wanted Ben Miles – the entire cast of Wolf Hall, but more than any of the others, Ben Miles, to know that we loved him. Later, on my way home, I reflected that perhaps a greater tribute than screaming applause (although we the audience did scream and applaud) was our silence. When Henry VIII signs five death warrants, he sits in a shaft of fog-shrouded light, at a table. Cromwell hands him a warrant. The king pauses, then signs. Rafe Sadler (who is played in the PBS series by Thomas Brodie Sangster, who I admire to excess, but that’s another story) who is played by Joshua Silver, steps forward, sprinkles powder to dry the fresh ink of the signature, removes the document and steps back into his position of relative shadow.
This happened five times, without dialogue, without music. I could hear the air whooshing from the cooling vents in the Winter Garden Theater (my father was in HVAC, so I notice these things). From the audience, there was no coughing, no rustling. There was not a throat clearing. I was aware of the spot on my spine that these days aches when I’ve been sitting too long and we were now entering the sixth hour of theater, but I compared my mild suffering–much like the many fervent clergy who had been part of the five hours of drama preceeding this moment, who flamboyantly proclaimed their willingness to suffer to achieve salvation–to that of what Ben Miles must be experiencing. For two and half hours that afternoon, and two and a half hours that evening, he had been onstage the entire time. He would start to exit a scene, then pivot to face a new set of players, like a knight on a chessboard. He rarely (and I do mean rarely) even sat down. When he wasn’t standing or moving, he was kneeling to a king or a bishop, a former queen, a queen to be.
Wolf Hall is being presented on Broadway by the RSC in two discrete plays: Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies, each based upon the book of the same title. They are the first two books (each won the Booker prize, a rarity for a series) of a trilogy by Hilary Mantel about Thomas Cromwell, and his role during part of the reign of King Henry VIII. Tudor England has always interested me, since Anne of a Thousand Days, which I didn’t get to see when it was first released but read the book, which was most likely a novelization of a screenplay based on a play, but I was a child at the time, so I read anything I could get my hands on. I’m a bit more discriminating now, and perhaps I’m fairly arrogant about my own writing, but it is rare that I read a novel by a contemporary author and think, maybe I should just hang this up and open a wine bar, because I will never be that. But that is how I felt when I read Wolf Hall, and I proceeded, while waiting for Bring Up the Bodies, to read her other writings, and to generally worship Hilary Mantel (see my earlier post, “History Dames”). For me, the Broadway production of Wolf Hall was among the best theater I have ever seen.
The dialogue is witty and contemporary without seeming anachronistic. Much of it is taken directly from the books, so much so that the Tony nominating committee has decided that Hilary Mantel should be credited as a co-playwright. The production values are of the latest trend for the RSC — large, high sets with minimal props (tables, chairs) brought on and removed by the actors, with the interesting (and well-used in this case) innovation of strips of fire to indicate the fire of a fireplace and also the mayhem of vandalizing fire. This firestrip was also put to use in the recent and uneasy Romeo and Juliet with Orlando Bloom. That production suffered, as Wolf Hall does not, with a number of “look at me! I’m acting!” performances. You don’t look at the acting in Wolf Hall because you are watching the characters–easily manipulated Henry, overplaying-her-hand Anne, boasting George Boleyn, and always the crafty, patient, loyal and vengeful Cromwell. Thanks to the skill of the writing and acting, they are swiftly familiar and often exasperating, like more clever and less clumsy versions of people you already know.
All that said, this might not be the play for you. This was a self-selecting audience: one with enough money for the tickets (if you buy tickets to both you get a break, but it’s still $220 for a day’s entertainment) and enough education and interest in this specific area of history. A man turned around during intermission of the first play to ask if I was a teacher (I’ve learned that if, while sitting in the audience at a play, you mention more than two other plays, people think you are a teacher.) He told me that he had taught high school English for 38 years, which made him, in my eyes, a far greater martyr than Sir Thomas More on stage there. The woman in the next seat for the second play spoke at length to me about the novels, reminding me of bits of dialogue I’d forgotten.
We audience were primarily women. I’d say 85%. We were all ardent fans already. From the conversations I had with seatmates, ladies-in-waiting for the restroom, and people at the next table at dinner (during the dinner break, which comes relatively early, so it was easy to spot fellow “Wolf Hall-ers”) the audience had read the books and/or but mainly and were watching the PBS series. If you don’t know what you are going to see, you would be lost. There are a few grounding bits of dialogue (“It’s been 18 years!” and “this is 1503!”) but no long expository exchanges of dialogue. The scenes are swift and cinematic, but there is a lot of ground to cover.
Theater is spectacle, and Wolf Hall is spectacular. The stagecraft alone — the lighting and the costumes — are breathtaking. Characters scurry about, becapped, in black, dark grey or foreshadowing blood-red, scurrying across the stage, scheming, betraying, blundering, while Cromwell, who unveils new hard-won skills only when they are needed (“I was a solider.” “I was in the silk trade.” “I was a banker in Florence.”) keeps a ledger of grudges and insults, scores he will settle.
On occasion the busyness stops and we are caught in a tableau, as when Henry signs the death warrants, when Cromwell, spends a last quiet moment with his wife, when meek Jane Seymour, in virginial white, penetrates Cromwell’s many masks with her sincere offering of sympathy for the loss of his wife and daughters. These scenes are lit like a Vermeer painting, except that in Vermeer, women in isolated rooms sit in the illumination of a window, sewing a hem, writing a letter, awaiting their fate, which will be decided in a far different painting, say, a Rembrandt, where sallow men bicker over points of theology and law, or an impromptu militia charges into heedless action.
Henry wanted a son so that upon his death England would not descend into the civil war from which it had only recently emerged. Protestant stirrings were creeping in from the low countries, after the invention of the printing press increased the availability of books, leading to an increase of literacy, leading to the idea that people might want to read Scripture themselves in their native tongue, rather than have it presented to them by a priest. “Is there a Pope in the Bible?” asks Cromwell. “Are there monks, nuns?” Wolf Hall balances these and a dozen other ideas — how harshly grief haunts, the harsh demands of loyalty, the fleeting nature of power — and in doing so creates a world I never wanted to leave, even after five and a half hours.