Wolf Halls

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

A lot of Wolf Hall for one weekend–the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday, and on Sunday, the first episode of the BBC’s 6-part television version. Author Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize for both Wolf Hall and part II of her Tudor trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (on stage later this spring), edited and reportedly likes both rather similar versions.

Having enjoyed these books, I felt well prepared for their intricate power politics, not to mention the confusing English naming conventions, in which the Duke of Norfolk is sometimes called “Norfolk” and sometimes by his given name, Thomas Howard (all anyone needs to know is that in any Henry VIII story, Norfolk is never a good guy). But the theater audience was on the ball, got the jokes, followed the plot, and enjoyed the show terrifically. I know I did. Of course, Mantel’s narratives (combined, almost 950 pages) were stripped down for both stage and tv, yet the essentials powerfully remained.

On stage, the leads were Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker (Henry VIII), and Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn). Miles’s Cromwell comes on slowly, but strongly. After his mentor Cardinal Wolsey is exiled, he finds a place at Henry’s court by following the advice “Stand in his light until he can’t help but notice you.” But Cromwell is the son of a blacksmith, and the nobility never let him forget it.

He makes himself indispensable at every turn, particularly when it comes to the King’s Great Matter: having his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he is free to marry Anne Boleyn—partly out of lust and partly in the quest for a male heir. Here’s where the politics get dicey. England and Catherine are Catholic, and the Pope won’t agree to ending the marriage. Henry’s rupture with Rome over this issue led to formation of the Church of England, with him at its head. The split occurred in the intellectual context of the Protestant Reformation, supported by Anne. For some, this was heresy, and heretics risked burning.

Catherine won’t agree to an annulment, in large part because it would make her daughter Mary a bastard. Anne presses for her daughter Elizabeth to head the line of succession. Eventually, Henry tires of Anne’s badgering and . . . oh, wait. That’s Bring Up the Bodies, coming to theaters later this spring and to tv later in the series.

Meanwhile, in the television version, accomplished actor Mark Rylance is Cromwell, skinny Damian Lewis, wearing a hugely padded costume, is Henry VIII, and Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn. In only an hour, the seeds of the controversy are laid, and we haven’t heard much from Catherine, Henry, and Anne yet. Rylance, too, is a taciturn Cromwell, though you have the impression he misses nothing.

In the theatrical version, the costumes are lush, but the set was beyond minimal, no time for shifting setting in the fast-paced scene-changes. Yet I didn’t feel deprived. This minimalism allowed the drama to dominate. Switching to the tv version, it’s obvious how much time is spent walking from room to room and place to place when sets are involved. Both versions: time well spent.