Adapted to the stage by Mike Poulton and Directed by Jeremy Herrin, Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2 should be savored slowly and all day. Part 1 tackles the annulment of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, as he decides that the younger, more beautiful Anne Boleyn is the only one that can bear him a male heir, after Catherine’s many miscarriages. Denied by the church and unable to bed Anne without marrying her, Henry is at a loss until Thomas Cromwell, blacksmith’s son, and lawyer, comes along with an ingenious plan, have Henry be the head of his own church therefore granting him absolute power over the state of his own marriage. Catherine now in exile, Anne carrying his presumed heir, and Mary declared a bastard, everything seems to go swimmingly until Elizabeth is born and there is no son. Two years later and not only has Anne not been able to carry a son to term, King Henry’s wandering eyes have caught sight of Jane Seymour, and his current wife’s shrew behavior and loose ways are finally brought to the court. And so Part 1 ends, with an audience on the edge of their seats, knowing full well what history has entail for Anne Boleyn but unable to help the indrawn breath that inevitably happens with good theatre.
And so we’re back after a two hour reprieve to recover and savor the previous hours’ entertainment only to find King Henry is in a bit of a moral pickle and Cromwell at a loss as to how to proceed. Henry, convinced Anne is a witch who bewitched him wants another annulment, and Cromwell, well established at court with the respect he never had before, is going to get him one. Cromwell not only finds her “lovers” but in a trial that can only be described as fixed, he manages to find “evidence” of incest, adultery, and ultimately treason effectively tying the noose around the five men accused and Anne Boleyn, herself. In a gripping scene we see the terrible corruption of absolute power as King Henry signs away six lives for immediate execution. King Henry marries Jane 11 days later and once more the audience is left knowing the end, but enraptured nonetheless.
Ben Miles shines at Thomas Cromwell. He portrays the hero protagonist so well that the audience can’t help but remember and question their history lessons. An emotional performance that speaks volumes, Miles is the epitome of virtue, a man with the morals of a saint as he navigates the treacherous waves of the court he grew up so far from filled with the likes that had no respect for his common stock. From losing his mentor, the Chancellor Wulsie(Paul Jesson), to his wife Lizzie(Olivia Darnley), and his daughters, Miles portrays a new, more sentimental anti hero, one that the public can identify with, even as his actions are directly responsible for the death of possible innocents. Bravo Miles!
Lydia Leonard tackles one of the most memorable female characters of history with flourish and grace. Her conniving planning to become Queen of England is admirable even as her fading French accent grates. Playing both innocent ingenue and knowing seductress, she seamlessly floats between personalities, a trait one would most certainly find in the royal women of those days. Her ambition shines through her performance, but there is nothing sympathetic about her character.
Nathaniel Parker as King Henry VIII is an overworked, petulant boy/man. His sole desire is to be in love with a family full of heirs, but can’t seem to find a wife suitable to his growing religious needs. Parker also creates an empathetic character, one the audience hopes will be happy with his current state, but who know that it is an impossible feat. Bending, breaking, and ignoring the rules, he breaks down in what can only be called a paradox of character, when he must sign the death warrant of Francis Weston. “Weston? But he’s so young…” the line trails into silence as the quill is put to paper. Rules are rules, and if one must be erased for a monarch’s pleasure, than they all must be.
What is a show without the myriad of actors that make up all the other players? It should be noted that this troupe is filled with talent and skill. Eight hours of theatre is no easy feat and this cast was impeccable. Their timing, both comedic and dramatic kept the audience engaged to the very end and I cannot help but applaud such fortitude.
A character unto itself, the scenic and costume design by Tony and Olivier winner, Christopher Oram is flawless. The set is minimalistic providing a backdrop for movable set pieces that create and break down each scene perfectly. The solid greyness of the walls provide the canvas for the impeccably designed period costumes to be displayed against. Academy Award winning composer Stephen Warbeck’s music is breathtaking. One cannot help being acutely aware of the music heightening one’s feelings, while also being helpless to it’s pull.
Ironic laughter and hushed silence is what awaits you at The Garden State Theater for this fifteen week engagement.
Review By: Aziza Seven
Photos By: Johan Persson