Review: Clever, cool 'Wolf Hall' on Broadway is addictive

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Historian Hilary Mantel has said she was prompted to focus on Thomas Cromwell because history was treating his life's story like a black hole. We have now all seen the light.

Thanks to her books, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," Cromwell is now desperately cool. There's a six-hour miniseries airing in America and a two-play stage production that's made its way to Broadway. What's next? Perhaps the musical "Cromwell!"

If it's as good as the Royal Shakespeare Company's stunning, addictive and clever adaptation, bring it on. After six hours of "Part One" and "Part Two," there were impatient people leaving the Winter Garden Theatre waiting for "Part Three."

This is not the Cromwell many of us learned about in school. The martyr isn't Thomas More. It's Cardinal Wolsey. And the hero isn't Henry VIII but Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who rises through the ranks of the court to become chief adviser and fixer for the king.

"Part One" concentrates on the eight years from 1527 to 1535 as Cromwell grows in power and yet loses his patron, Wolsey. The second play focuses on a single year, 1535, when Anne Boleyn falls from Henry's graces, which leads to her execution the following year.

The acting is led by an indefatigable Ben Miles, whose Cromwell is watchful, patient and sardonic. We watch him maneuver through the alliances and court, protecting his king with skillful manipulations and even what could be considered inchoate press releases.

Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII is riveting, at times needy or smitten and at others very, very dangerous. Lydia Leonard plays her Boleyn as entitled and arrogant, making her fall all that more painful.

Directed with blistering pace and guile by Jeremy Herrin, the Cromwell that emerges from these plays is less Machiavellian and more, well, superhero. "Do something, Cromwell!" more than one nobleman screams.

There's more than a little swagger in Cromwell's tunic, too. "Well you can't do anything about the weather, Tom," a character tells him. Replies Cromwell: "No, but I can change everything else."

The first part comes close to being force-fed history like a goose — but in a good way — via 30 scenes that change in a blink of an eye. Sometimes Miles simply takes a sharp right on the stage and we're in a new scene. Nothing is allowed to sit for very long as the tension builds.

In the second play, things slow down to a steady boil and Cromwell begins the tricky task of becoming a detective, gathering evidence to convict the queen. This part could be called "Prime Suspect: Tudor."

The lush costumes by Christopher Oram involve thick coats, suits of armor and glorious gowns, while Oram also built the striking, minimalist set, which adds fire — literally — against a grim backdrop that evokes England's St. George's cross. Two lighting designers — Paule Constable for "Part One" and David Plater in "Part Two" — wonderfully make these plays moody and intriguing.

Adapted by Mike Poulton, the two parts are connected by modern English, gallows humor, ghosts who chat with the living and by everyone complaining about the rain. One part alone stands by itself but this adaptation is like a bag of chips. Can you stop with just one?