So now we come to the whole reason why I crossed the pond in the first place…
I was more than ready for Wolf Hall when Monday night rolled around, probably one of the most anticipated nights of theatre I’ve had in a long, long time. I was curious how the huge character list from the book would be pared down and how the story would unfold as a result. The short answer – it was terrific. Let me also say here that I’m willing to concede that my conclusions and impressions of motives and emotions may not be exactly what was intended, but it hangs together in my mind, so here goes. One other observation – quite accidental – my seats for both performances were in the back half of the stalls (orchestra) and this theatre had an exceptionally low ceiling under the mezzanine in that part of the house. It contributed to the feeling of airlessness at the Tudor court.
The stage was bare except for occasional bits of furniture or other props, which kept the focus sharply on the characters. The play begins with a courtly dance with all the primary characters moving smoothly and changing partners as they moved, the King front and center – a metaphor for the entire story, if ultimately a danse macabre? The upstage wall is four quadrants of concrete-looking slabs almost meeting in the center, forming an open cross and adding to the feeling that nobody would escape their fate or their faith. Strips of fire as hearths, perhaps also hinting at the dangers of the times; rain to darken the mood. Thomas Cromwell, played by Ben Miles, almost never off the stage. Nathaniel Parker (aka TV’s Inspector Lynley) towering above everyone else as Henry VIII, not having turned to fat yet. One thing I might have done differently – not double up actors for some roles. The same person played Katherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary as well as Jane Seymour. Her Princess Mary was overly sickly, petulant, hanging her head in an almost vulture-like droop. I found her an oddly unsympathetic personality (are we supposed to view her that way because others in the play are so inclined? If so, it doesn’t do any favors for her mother). Her Jane Seymour was swallowed up by her white clothes. Other double-up jobs were not so noticeable, though that may just be my unfamiliarity with the actors. Of course, costuming and dialogue helped to minimize confusion.
Cromwell is described as ruthless, but I saw this only in a political sense rather than a personal one, at least in Wolf Hall. I had the same feeling when I read the book. On the other hand, in Bring Up the Bodies, the political finally becomes personal for Cromwell, as it has been all along for many others.
One scene melted into the next, the pace brisk but the plot, the thread, unmuddied; a growing feeling of inevitability – whether you’ve read the books or just paid attention in history class, you sort of already know who survives and who doesn’t. For some characters, this is just a new version of their story – think Anne of the Thousand Days and A Man for All Seasons, told from a different point of view.
A slight suggestion of place – the palace or Cromwell’s home, the river or the Cardinal’s rooms, proved this element to be secondary, often serving only to show that a particular conversation was possible without being overheard; more set dressing to show the where would only have slowed scene changes, taking away from motives, relationships and the growing feeling of life moving all too fast onto very unstable ground for all concerned – nowhere to hide. As the head/body count rises, characters who died reappear occasionally as ghosts to help the story along – one way to make up for having to squeeze the books’ thousand pages into six hours of theatre.
My favorite moment in Wolf Hall (I suppose this could be a spoiler alert of sorts) was between Cromwell and his wife, Liz. Only a couple of scenes to show their loving relationship, how they fretted over one another, as well as their children (son Gregory is here, but their two daughters are only talked about). The feeling between them is summed up in one gesture as Cromwell, coming home after some time away, holds out his hand to Liz, fingers spread for her to grasp. Later, when Liz and the girls are being sent out of the city to avoid the seasonal ‘sweating sickness’, Liz says to Thomas, “Don’t die. Don’t leave me alone”, to which he replies, “I’ll never leave you, Liz”, and reaches out behind him, fingers spread, towards the place where she’s sitting. His hand remains empty; the place where Liz had been is dark. When Cromwell turns around, the chair is lighted again but Liz is not there (she and their daughters have died from the sickness after all). An exquisite, wordless moment.
Wolf Hall ends with Anne, finally queen and mother to Elizabeth, miscarrying a boy; Thomas More on the verge of execution for refusing to sign the oath acknowledging Henry as head of the new English Church over the Pope; Henry bemoaning the fact that Cardinal Wolsey’s gone and, in the final seconds, Henry taking a long look at Jane Seymour (whose family home, btw, is Wolf Hall) spotlit upstage, mousy and small in her white dress. Uh-oh.
Brilliant, supremely satisfying theatre all around. I could easily have watched it again.
My final night for soaking up more of this thrilling Tudor saga came on Wednesday. Back to the Aldwych Theatre for part 2 of the Cromwell saga, Bring Up the Bodies. We pick up the story where Wolf Hall left off, rapidly slipping under the singular juggernaut that will kill Anne, impoverish her family and send the men accused of being her lovers to the chopping block.
Now I begin to see a personal ruthlessness in Cromwell towards Anne Boleyn. His relationship with her has become increasingly brittle. Anne wishes that Katherine were dead and Mary declared a bastard (among other things) but I don’t think these issues are the focus of Cromwell’s especial grudge. I think his main beef with Anne is that he holds her responsible for Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall and subsequent death (though not by execution, per se). Wolsey had been a great mentor of Cromwell’s, as well as his employer. Wolsey became Henry’s chief advisor and Cromwell took good notes. When Wolsey falls out of favor, unable to procure Henry’s divorce to Katherine from the Pope, Cromwell’s loyalty to Wolsey puts him in good standing with Henry, allowing him to step onto that dangerous escalator of power and favor. Cromwell even manages to engineer the change of wife that Wolsey had not managed to achieve but once Anne’s star begins to fade, Cromwell sees an opportunity to make Anne pay for the Cardinal’s destruction, even if she was more the excuse than the engine. He is also becoming more aware of how he will ensure his own survival. It’s a tightrope many have walked – giving the king what he wants or thinks he needs while keeping away from the scaffold and maybe even getting some of their own back. Some are more successful staying alive than others, no thanks to Henry. Life around the king is getting more and more treacherous.
Bring Up the Bodies was only slightly less engrossing than Wolf Hall, maybe because Wolf Hall had so much groundwork to lay on so many fronts that the singular plot line in Bodies of getting rid of Anne seemed unexciting by comparison, though that’s a thought I’m only having now. Many of the nobles who come to the fore now didn’t fit as easily into my mental genealogy – Norfolk? Suffolk? I kept trying to visualize where these regions were on the map, a pointless exercise. There was a “did they/didn’t they” feel as proofs were sought, witnesses heard and/or encouraged. Had we been watching a jury trial, there was more than enough reasonable doubt to go around.
Bodies ends with Boleyns et. al. dispatched, Henry anxious to wed and bed Jane Seymour and Cromwell ready to tackle whatever comes next. We hope.
I can hardly wait for the third volume of the trilogy to come out sometime this year and I’m curious to know what will become of these two plays as a result.
And under the heading of “that figures”, not only are the books being made into a six part TV series (with different actors from the staged version) but just this week I read that discussions are in progress for bringing the plays to Broadway in the spring. Mention was made of possibly using American actors for this US event, which I find beyond ridiculous. If it’s a question of work visas – pulleeease! Get a grip, guys! Must wait and see. Whatever happens, I was lucky enough to see these two marvelous productions in my favorite city on earth and that is more than enough.