It’s pure coincidence that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s celebrated stage adaptation of “Wolf Hall,” Hilary Mantel’s heavy literary tomes about rough-and-tumble Tudor statesmanship during the reign of King Henry VIII, opens on Broadway just days after the BBC’s equally celebrated six-part miniseries begins airing on PBS. There’s plenty of juicy material to go around in Mantel’s two books, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” both of which won the prestigious Man Booker prize. But there’s nothing bookish about the highly theatrical approach taken in director Jeremy Herrin’s lucidly told, handsomely staged and emotionally charged production. In fact, it’s not bookish enough.
The events of the double-barreled drama are clustered around three dominant figures. The extremely manly if emotionally volatile (and childishly superstitious) King Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) and that scheming vixen Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) are the historical heavyweights in the story. But as he is in the books, Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), the king’s devious adviser (“as cunning as a bag of serpents”), is our conscience and our guide in this explosive story. Orbiting these three giants is a cast of thousands — well, at least 20 of the RSC’s best and brightest — playing the many statesmen, courtiers, clergy, noblemen and other subjects whose lives and fortunes are dependent on the will and whims of their mercurial monarch.
In dramatizing the subplots in which they figure, Herrin chooses the power of suggestion over clunky stage machinery. (Hooray — no revolve!) In Christopher Oram’s austere set, a giant stylized crucifix on the back wall is framed by floor-to-ceiling concrete slabs, creating flexible staging areas that designers Paule Constable and David Plater bathe in a low light surrounded by velvety darkness. Seen against this monumental setting, the extravagant court costumes (also designed by Oram) provide more than enough visual color and decoration for this briskly paced narrative.
Even slow learners who nodded off in history class know the scandalous story of King Henry VIII, who married six wives and had interesting ways of getting rid of the old models before moving on to the next honey. It may even have penetrated thick teenage skulls that, although Henry’s lawfully wedded wife had given him a healthy daughter — who would grow up to become the English queen picturesquely known as Bloody Mary — the monarch wanted a legitimately born son to secure the Tudor dynasty.
At least, that was the lusty king’s rationale for invalidating his legal marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) and taking the seductive Anne as his second wife. And when she, too, bore him a daughter — who would become the first Queen Elizabeth — he had Anne beheaded for failing to give him a son. By then, he had already chosen her sly little lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead), for his next queen.
In his stage adaptation of the vast and complicated historical material in Mantel’s books, Mike Poulton handles the underlying political issues best in the early scenes featuring Paul Jesson’s warmly down-to-earth (and wonderfully earthy) Cardinal Wolsey, who is Henry’s Lord Chancellor when the play opens. During this powerful prelate’s humanizing interactions with his loyal protege and friend, Miles’ troubled Cromwell, it becomes painfully clear that King Henry’s doomed efforts to get Pope Clement VII to nullify his marriage will have devastating political consequences.
But to his tragic undoing, Wolsey simply can’t believe that the King would alienate such formidable political powers as the Pope of Rome, Queen Katherine’s people, the ruling King of Spain, and the most powerful monarch of them all, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who happens to be the Queen’s nephew. Being of a more Machiavellian mind than his mentor the Cardinal, Cromwell isn’t surprised when King Henry breaks with Rome, establishes the Protestant Church of England, and declares himself its spiritual ruler. An apolitical pragmatist, Cromwell can even appreciate the expediency of Henry’s shaky claims on the vast lands and great fortunes of the Roman Catholic Church — a boundless treasury for financing another costly invasion of France.
What Cromwell can’t countenance is the king’s cruel treatment of the elderly Cardinal, whom he strips of his dignity along with all his personal property and estates, and eventually, his life. Miles is a subtle character actor, as well as a classical performer in the heroic Shakespearean tradition, and there’s genuine grief as well as seething anger in his reaction to the royal court’s humiliation of Wolsey. A brilliantly stylized court scene in which Cromwell berates the king’s courtiers for mocking the dead Cardinal’s memory with a vile satirical pantomime called “The Cardinal’s Descent Into Hell” even provides Cromwell with a righteous motive for his vengeful actions in the second play, when he has the king’s ear as Lord Chancellor.
But that second play is still problematic. Although the highly corporeal ghost of Cardinal Wolsey steals in and out of the action to warn Cromwell about court machinations, none of the other secondary characters has the old prelate’s boisterous wit — or Jesson’s personal charm. Parker is a protean actor, and he keeps finding fresh ways to keep King Henry interesting as he becomes increasingly petulant, impatient and intractable. But Leonard’s initially compelling Anne Boleyn becomes increasingly shrill and grating as her power over the king begins to slip. (She does, however, redeem herself with a really nice death scene.) And although Cromwell’s power is seriously threatened by his enemies among the aristocracy, not even his arch-adversary, the Duke of Norfolk (the blustery Nicholas Day), poses much of an intellectual challenge.
Spending more face time with Cromwell is no hardship, especially when Miles allows the great statesman’s political pragmatism to darken into something more frighteningly irrational. But it’s disappointing that the scribe fails to expand on the political issues he introduced early in the narrative. There’s no hint of how the Reformation brought on by Henry’s rupture with Rome would revolutionize all of Europe, although to be fair, Mantel might be saving that for her third book. But little is made of the king’s more sinister motive for sacking and pillaging the wealth of the 800 Roman Catholic monasteries on English soil — to establish his Royal Navy and to finance another costly invasion of France.
So, just when you expect the drama to move into deeper and darker political territory, it shrivels up and becomes what a lot of American kids took away from high-school history class — the salacious story of a horny king who chopped off his wives’ heads whenever he wanted a new bride.