Bring a pillow. Not that you will need it to rest your head due to boredom – although boredom does have its moments in this Royal Shakespeare Company production based on the popular novels by Hilary Mantel and adapted by Mike Poulton – but for back support. Each two act drama runs just under three hours each and if you do a double-header your back may ache and your mind may be running on overdrive to absorb all that is presented on stage at the Winter Garden – even with a dinner break.
There’s plenty of action with its cast of twenty three directed with cinematic fluidity by Jeremy Herrin – the staging is as fast as turning a page in one of Ms. Mantel’s epic novels.
Both for actors and audience WOLF HALL is a dark endurance test with plenty of mist and fog effects (enough to induce coughs) enacted on an open set that appears more Tower of London that opulent Castle with costumes done in a palette of gray and dreary earth tones (designed by Christopher Oram).
Especially for the excellent Ben Miles who in on stage seemingly throughout without a break as Thomas Cromwell. Son of a blacksmith, lawyer, master negotiator and arriviste.
It is he who is the main focus in this variation on the Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) and his wives bit of English history saga. Henry needs an heir. A son. He wants to rid himself of wife number one – Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) after twenty years who has only provided him with a daughter – the fragile Princess Mary (Leah Brotherhead). Katherine had been married to Henry’s brother and when he died Henry popped into her bed. Now he wants to replace her with the canny and cunning flat-chested Anne Boleyn (a mean and ruthless Lydia Briers). With Ms. Briers shrewish portrayal there is little charm involved and one wonders what Henry was attracted to…
I’ll cut to the chase here. She will not be his mistress she will be Queen and “promises” Henry a son. She wins. They wed after a lot of problems with the Pope and Anne’s rumored penchant for spells and charms and young handsome men. She bears him a child. Another daughter. And two still born sons. And so Henry, despondent and thinking God has somehow put the double whammy on him, espies the simple Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead redux) of Wolf Hall. End of Part One.
After stretching my legs and a wonderful meal at PERGOLA DES ARTISTES on 46th Street we pick up where we left off. Henry in hot pursuit of Jane and attempting to legally rid himself of Anne by digging up dirt on her by having Cromwell who has managed well up to this point interview the past beaus of Anne including her brother George (Edward Harrison) for their rumored incestuous relationship. It’s a complicated affair and this is where you might nod off.
Of course we all know she gets her head chopped off – not seen – and Henry marries the ulta shy and simple Jane Seymour. Cliffhanger here. Does she have a son? Perhaps that will be explained in the next three hour installment which I shall gladly skip.
There are some court dances, some bits of humor and a joust that almost kills the King, the very much alive Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson) and his ghost and the rest of the Tudor clan that almost bring this story to life.
You may want to tune in to the PBS version based on the same source material. It’s much less expensive. In fact, it’s free.
Photos: Johan Persson
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