Part deep-dive into Tudor-era historical fiction and part endurance contest, “Wolf Hall” has settled into the vast Winter Garden Theatre, where its two sections are performed in repertory by nearly two-dozen finely tuned members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The complete stage interpretation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels—the second volume, “Bring Up the Bodies,” has here been christened “Wolf Hall, Part 2”—can be seen in one six-hour swoop, with a dinner break, or on different days. Even if you walk in with ample historical context about Henry VIII’s volatile court, the story demands intense focus to keep pace.
“Wolf Hall” revisits historical figures with whom we’re all at least a bit familiar: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The title is the location of the Seymour family seat; we’ll presumably hear more from the Seymours when Mantel publishes the eagerly-awaited third volume in her series, some day.
Classic stories such as “A Man for All Seasons” paint a dark picture of statesman Cromwell, while offering Sir Thomas More, another of the king’s advisers, as a proud man of conviction. Mantel has said she wanted to turn that characterization on its ear, and indeed her Cromwell is a relatable pragmatist, a blacksmith’s boy who rose to become the king’s chief “fixer”—as an astute friend said on Twitter after Sunday's double-bill: “So Thomas Cromwell was like a 16th-century Olivia Pope?”
Indeed, the focus of “Wolf Hall” is on Cromwell (RSC company member Ben Miles, in an admirable performance), and how he comes to earn the king’s trust as others around him are losing their jobs, or heads. Mantel’s exploration begins in 1527, as the king (Nathaniel Parker) worries over the absence of a male heir, and evolves through Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall (Lydia Leonard is positively electric as the king’s second wife).
In a complex portrayal, Miles paints Cromwell as a stable center of the universe, around whom orbits the wrathful king, his angry lovers and the opportunistic Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Paul Jesson). The major takeaway about Cromwell? He’s so cunning that he manages to hold the trust of everyone, almost all the time, over an incredible stretch of years … at least until he betrays them.
Parker’s Henry VIII is a buffoon, an oblivious narcissist more interested in his own love affairs than affairs of state. Cardinal Wolsey eventually falls out of favor with Henry not because the king stops liking him, but because Anne views the papal legate as the only thing standing between him and divorce from wife No. 1, Katherine of Aragon (portrayed with stiff-necked grace by Lucy Briers).
Jesson and Leonard (below) are charismatic performers with incredible stamina who command attention whenever they’re on stage. Wolsey’s death plays out in a somewhat confusing manner, as a staged play that seems to evoke a Chinese New Year celebration.
As well, with “Wolf Hall,” we still get Thomas More (John Ramm) as a man of conviction who stood up to Henry VIII when the king turned his back on the Roman Catholic Church … but he’s something of a blabbering fool, with a vague idea that a woman can dictate the sex of her baby.
More minor characters, notably servant Christophe (Pierro Niel-Mee), with his unvarnished take on matters, and musician Mark Smeaton (Joey Batey), who will meet an unfair destiny, are all the more interesting thanks to the actors’ fine interpretations.
“Wolf Hall” arrives here following a sold-out run last May on the West End; it’s directed by Olivier Award-nominee Jeremy Herrin. If six hours of historical fiction is too daunting, you can always indulge in Mantel’s best-selling novels, or PBS’s Masterpiece, where the TV version of “Wolf Hall” now airs with Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis of “Homeland” as Henry VIII.
“Wolf Hall,” Parts One and Two, through July 5 at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway. Tickets: $27-$250. Call Telecharge, 212-239-6200.