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WOLF HALL – Critics’ Corner

 

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The Broadway transfer of The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wolf Hall: Parts 1 & 2 opened on April 9, 2015 at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Let’s see what the critics had to say…

Ben Brantley, The New York Times: The stage version…is strictly for fun. That may sound like a weak recommendation to those who wear their brows high. But being fun in period costume for nearly five-and-a-half hours of live theater is no mean achievement…But it’s also because Mr. Herrin and Mr. Poulton craftily use the narrative urgency and immediacy of live theater to turn audiences into pleasurably guilty confidants. Spun as a bright web of tittle-tattle, “Wolf Hall” pours secrets of states and of stately boudoirs into your ears, while reminding you that well-wielded gossip can be a potent (and potentially lethal) political weapon…Working with a vast cast of characters (embodied by a protean ensemble of almost two dozen) and covering many convolutions of plot, history, law and sexual practices, “Wolf Hall” nonetheless gives the impression of always traveling light…Both staging and script use a galleon-load of hoary theatrical tools and tricks to keep us hooked, in ways that are as effective as they are shameless.

Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: The acting is led by an indefatigable Ben Miles, whose Cromwell is watchful, patient and sardonic. We watch him maneuver through the alliances and court, protecting his king with skillful manipulations and even what could be considered inchoate press releases. Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII is riveting, at times needy or smitten and at others very, very dangerous. Lydia Leonard plays her Boleyn as entitled and arrogant, making her fall all that more painful. Directed with blistering pace and guile by Jeremy Herrin, the Cromwell that emerges from these plays is less Machiavellian and more, well, superhero…The first part comes close to being force-fed history like a goose — but in a good way — via 30 scenes that change in a blink of an eye…In the second play, things slow down to a steady boil and Cromwell begins the tricky task of becoming a detective, gathering evidence to convict the queen…One part alone stands by itself but this adaptation is like a bag of chips. Can you stop with just one?

Marilyn Stasio, Variety: There’s plenty of juicy material to go around in Mantel’s two books…But there’s nothing bookish about the highly theatrical approach taken in director Jeremy Herrin’s lucidly told, handsomely staged and emotionally charged production. In fact, it’s not bookish enough…Miles is a subtle character actor, as well as a classical performer in the heroic Shakespearean tradition, and there’s genuine grief as well as seething anger in his reaction to the royal court’s humiliation of Wolsey…But that second play is still problematic…Parker is a protean actor, and he keeps finding fresh ways to keep King Henry interesting as he becomes increasingly petulant, impatient and intractable. But Leonard’s initially compelling Anne Boleyn becomes increasingly shrill and grating as her power over the king begins to slip…But it’s disappointing that the scribe fails to expand on the political issues he introduced early in the narrative…So, just when you expect the drama to move into deeper and darker political territory, it shrivels up and becomes what a lot of American kids took away from high-school history class — the salacious story of a horny king who chopped off his wives’ heads whenever he wanted a new bride.

David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: Already a hit in London, where it transferred to the West End after bowing to much acclaim at the RSC’s home base in Stratford, the production is a mighty undertaking. It’s directed by Jeremy Herrin with propulsive energy; designed with commanding stagecraft by Christopher Oram and a superb team on lighting, music and sound; and performed with authority and an abundance of sly humor by a first-rate troupe of 23. If the play’s two parts ultimately prove uneven — with the vigorous, bold-strokes storytelling of Part One giving way to uneven pacing and a nagging shortage of social and political context in Part Two — that could have something to do with the giant spoiler that even the most distracted history student knows: Anne Boleyn loses her head. As admirable as the production is, it can’t compare with the exhilarating vibrancy and theatrical originality of last season’s British double-bill, Twelfth Night and Richard III. But while it might fall short of the pantheon of all-time great stage events, Wolf Hall is nonetheless an impressive feat, a compelling drama played out across the canvas of a nation soaked in rain and mud and blood.

Robert Kahn, NBC New York: Part deep-dive into Tudor-era historical fiction and part endurance contest, “Wolf Hall” has settled into the vast Winter Garden Theatre…Even if you walk in with ample historical context about Henry VIII’s volatile court, the story demands intense focus to keep pace…Indeed, the focus of “Wolf Hall” is on Cromwell…and how he comes to earn the king’s trust as others around him are losing their jobs, or heads…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.

Elysa Gardner, USA Today: The subject matter is hardly dull or arcane…At issue, often, is how intrinsically dramatic a character this Cromwell is. Ben Miles provides a suitably thoughtful, nuanced central performance as a man who can be a ruthless enforcer but is not without his own principles…But Cromwell is not, in these plays, allowed any moment of real revelation or release. The flickers of anger, regret and exhaustion that poke through his pragmatic efficiency are not enough to make him a compelling central figure. Other characters allow for more heightened emotional expression. As Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first queen, the excellent Lucy Briers is at once fierce and palpably wounded — a worthy rival to Lydia Leonard’s haughty, saucy Anne, and to the charismatic Henry of Nathaniel Parker, who deftly avoids caricature. The supple performances provided by these and other cast members cannot, however, compensate for plays that impress but don’t transport us.

Linda Winer, Newsday: Based on Hilary Mantel’s two prizewinning books, this prestige event of the Broadway season offers straightforward storytelling, finely wrought performances and yards upon yards of magnificent 16th century costumes…An admirable acting Olympiad is led by Ben Miles’ smooth and shrewd portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who rose to consigliere of the Tudor court. For all the marathon’s heft, however, this is not a perception-altering import…Despite the feral titles, the plays offer more steady elegance than wild passion. Miles, seldom off the stage, shows us a Cromwell who is ruthless, but not bloodthirsty. Mocked for his working-class background, he admirably grows slicker and more powerful without stooping to villainous cliche…It is hard not to wish for something deeper from all those hours onstage.

David Cote, Time Out NY: As cunningly played by Ben Miles…Cromwell is at once cipher, savior and demon over nearly six hours of wrangling between pope and crown, and then within the vipers’ nest that was the court of King Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker)…Given the long shadow of English history plays, there are faint but unmistakable textual echoes of Shakespeare two great tetralogies…But the comparison is double-edged; as much as the fact-crammed pageantry of Wolf Hall maintains admirable clarity and pacing, it often lacks the sudden burst of lyricism or philosophical depth you find in the Bard. In other words, I’d have taken more poetry over plot. Still, as a fast-paced political thriller, it is fiendishly engaging, and director Jeremy Herrin’s 23-member corps skillfully distinguishes multiple roles.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: It’s amazing that a story jampacked with lust, betrayal, greed and violence can be so . . . dull. As well-acted, grandly staged and beautifully lit as it is, the show still manages to be tedious…Miles is onstage almost the entire time, and his portrayal is sturdy and dependable. This is the Subaru of performances: extremely reliable, but not exactly a white-knuckle ride. Mike Poulton’s adaptation…doesn’t give Miles’ Cromwell the chance to go all-out, mostly because it consists of people relaying the very exciting business that happened offstage…Either way, the British cast is technically adept. Nathaniel Parker, looking like a sturdier Jeremy Piven, barrels through the opposition as Henry, and Paul Jesson voraciously gobbles the scenery as the deposed Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. But the most pulse-quickening scenes in this overpolite pageant belong to the women, notably Lucy Briers’ Katherine, seething in a Spanish accent, and Leonard’s feisty, cunning Anne.

Matt Windman, AM New York: Although full of intrigue and cruel twists of fate, “Wolf Hall” is a stiff, step-by-step, plodding march through English history, leaving little space for character development. One-liners and broad jokes have been added in that inappropriately contradict the ominous tone. Given that Part Two is hardly the end of the King Henry saga, “Wolf Hall” is incomplete as a narrative. Perhaps they should have waited for Mantel to finish all of her books before doing this onstage.

Ronni Reich, The Star-Ledger: The description of Cromwell’s interior world, rather than dialogue, drives the book, and the panorama of his experiences lends itself well to the camera on the series. The stage version can feel like a less natural fit, but it still holds rewards for fans…So much must be explained that the play can feel too close to a timeline, with much of its first act spent dealing with exposition…”Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies,” which focuses on the reign of Anne Boleyn and the ascent of Jane Seymour, is far more successful in portraying the political intrigue and its multifaceted characters. Here, we see more of the pull of Miles’ Cromwell. His eyes are almost always wide and alert, as if on the lookout for danger, though they sometimes take on a haunted quality as he reflects on painful memories…Henry Nathaniel Parker’s King is similarly layered. Although boyish and relatable when in good spirits, he also displays unhinged rage when events turn against him. He is sympathetic in his increasing torment as he wonders why god has cursed him with a line of babies that have failed to thrive and no male heir.

Michael Glitz, Huffington Post: The problems are many, beginning with the novels themselves. Oh, they’re wonderful and I can’t wait for the final book in what is now a trilogy. But when I first heard of the project my initial reaction was not excitement but a quizzical “Really? Wolf Hall as a play?” Anything can be transmuted into another form of course. But the great strength of the novels is their interior richness. There’s plot-a-plenty but that’s not what makes Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies great. It’s Mantel’s quicksilver capturing of Cromwell’s thinking, the delight in being inside the mind of the smartest person in the room. All of that would be very hard to dramatize on a stage, to say the least. Your main character remains a cipher to most everyone around him. But what of it? He might address the audience, allow us into his thoughts, like a Richard III. We might delight in his confidence and his confidences. Sadly, the play doesn’t attempt this.

Charles McNulty, LA Times: Of course, it helps that this production, even with its narrative limitations, is so fluidly pulled off. But I for one am relieved that “Hamilton” is on its way to Broadway. We might not have a king disposing of wives as though they were leased cars, but we have plenty of historical intrigue of our own to sort through.

Ray Rahman, Entertainment Weekly: The sheer number of actors parading across the stage (nearly two dozen) can be overwhelming, particularly when it seems half the characters are named Thomas. But Wolf Hall is remarkably efficient in streamlining the Mantel novels down to their most exciting essence, making the play’s pace seem much swifter than six hours. The immensely talented actors manage to make every backroom deal, courtier spat and royal tantrum fully enjoyable.

Joe Dziemianowicz, NY Daily News: So many people already have more than a passing knowledge of Tudor England, thanks to countless retelling of this story in books, TV, film, and an opera. The familiarity can be a drawback; the pacing drags a bit because we’re awaiting the twist we know is coming. And the show could stand to fire more emotions. But this excellent ensemble shines. Parker cuts an impressive presence as the much-married monarch. Leonard is fetching and fierce as Anne. Briers brings uncompromising grace and smarts as Catherine (spelled with a K by the production). Brotherhead adds vulnerability as Jane, a living pawn whose own father can’t recall her name.

Jesse Green, Vulture: Indeed, aside from the Boleyn intrigue, which is handled fairly thoroughly, there’s a little-bit-of-everything flavor to the proceedings. That makes sense, and I’m not sure you could find any other way to corral the material in Mantel’s books unless you were willing to go for 60 hours instead of 6. Still, I found myself wondering whether newcomers to the period might guess from the play that anything else important happened while Cromwell was serving as Henry’s marriage counselor. The dissolution of the monasteries, an event of huge significance, is mentioned briefly. The creation of the English Bible earns a line or two. But mostly what we have is an extremely elegant Tudor soap opera, the kind of “event theater” that from time to time can fill a Winter Garden. It fits nicely with the three-course prix fixe “English feast” dinner being offered to Wolf Hall patrons at the nearby Rock Center Café between plays. There you may choose among such menu offerings as Scotch egg, shepherd’s pie, and bubble and squeak. Venison or pheasant would be more authentic, but who has the time?

Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal: I haven’t read either of Ms. Mantel’s much-praised novels, nor am I a scholar of 16th-century England. I can, however, assure you that Mr. Poulton’s 51/2 -hour stage version of “Wolf Hall,” unlike Bolt’s immaculately crafted, endlessly quotable play, is competent but dullish, a procession of short, choppy scenes in which nobody ever says anything more memorable than “Bring up the bodies!” The acting is as devoid of sparkle as the script, with Mr. Miles giving us a flat and uncharismatic Cromwell and Nathaniel Parker’s King Henry sounding way too much like Peter O’Toole.