Wolf Hall Brings Sex and Violence to Broadway

Opening Night   Wolf Hall Brings Sex and Violence to Broadway
The 2014-15 British Invasion of Broadway continues with the opening of Wolf Hall, the two-part, six-hour look at the violent history of Henry VIII and the first three of his wives.
Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard
Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard Photo by Johan Persson

Save for Rocky's recent six-month stint there, The Winter Garden Theatre at 50th and Broadway has for more than three decades been both home and home base for stray Brits who happen to make it across the pond — like Cats and Mamma Mia!

Thus, it was inevitable the Royal Shakespeare Company naturally gravitated to this particular house and parked two plays there April 9 called Wolf Hall, a kind of club for 16th century cutthroats who commit dastardly deeds for king and country. The king is Henry VIII, and his quest for a son-bearing wife creates quite a body count.

Bloody Bloody Henry Tudor you might call it, although the only drop of "blood" on stage occurs when Henry extracts a heart from a fallen stag he has hunted down. He is no less subtle and direct in his human dealings, which are deftly, often fatally, negotiated by his lawyer, Thomas Cromwell, to enable the monarch to bed-bounce from Katherine of Aragon to Anne Boleyn to Jane Seymour. There are three more marital revolutions after this, but that's all Dame Hilary Mantel and her adapter, Mike Poulton, wrote. (Yes, they're at work on a third.) "It's a different take on the story, telling a very familiar story from a different angle — from Cromwell's point of view," pointed out Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Gregory Doran. "We're endlessly fascinated, aren't we, with the Tudors? Certainly in the U.K., we are, and it seems the rest of the world is, too. It's a grand royal soap opera, and watching this over six hours is like watching the best TV box set you ever had."

Doran sees the Winter Garden as a perfect fit for Wolf Hall: "You need something of the scape and scale of Wolf Hall if you're going to do a play here. We've done a lot of work to thrust the stage out into the auditorium but you don't feel as if it's a massive house when you're sitting there, because the actors are so close to you. Chris Oram, our designer, has done a fantastic job in bringing that into the house."

Intricate lighting — in the first play by Paule Constable and in the second by David Plater when Constable wasn't available — abets to the gangbuster pacing. A character walks out of a scene, turns on a dime and walks into another. That shaves decades.

The dominant force of nature onstage is, as it should be, Nathaniel Parker's Henry VIII, and he knows it. "It's my happy place, I have to say," the actor beamed broadly.

"I've never known anything like it since I started at the RSC 28 years ago. I was at The Swan, which is where these plays started — 400 seats, now at the Winter Garden we play to 1,400 — and I remember the enthusiasm I had then. I've had a mixed time on the stage since, but now I couldn't be happier. I feel I'm a kid again, that I've gone back to it now. I've never been more alive on the stage. This is a role of a lifetime."

In contrast, Ben Miles thinks his Cromwell hasn't quite emerged from the political shadows he cloaked himself in. "He has always been in the background of history, but I think Hilary's books and this show and the TV series will set him in a new light. I would dearly loved to have met him. I think he would be a very, very useful friend, and he'd be terrible as an enemy. He would take to New York like a duck to water."

One face in Thursday's crowd, Monty Arnold, saw Cromwell as a 16th-century Tom Hagen, the Corleone's fix-it lawyer Robert Duvall played in "The Godfather," and Miles bought it. "That's a good analogy," he said. "Cromwell's a useful and dangerous guy who can go only so high because he's not family. If he steps too high, forget it."

Cromwell did step too high four years later. "We end in 1536, and by 1540 he was dead. He set up the marriage of Anne of Cleves, and, of course, it didn't go well. That started his slow downfall. The lords of the land—the Duke of Norfork and Stephen Gardiner, who are featured in these plays — slowly turn the king's mind against Cromwell, and, within a matter of months, he was in the tower and beheaded." Director Jeremy Herrin couldn't help but note the plays seem to go over better in the U.S. than the U.K, and he understand why that is: "We Brits know what we feel, but we don't like to show it, whereas Americans are really, really brilliant in showing what they feel about it. To have a standing ovation like that is really wonderful."

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