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An executioner is in a bit of a pickle. He can’t seem to match his victims’ bodies to their recently severed heads:
“Master Secretary. It appears… There is some… confusion.”
“You mean you can’t tell which head goes with which body?”
An irreverent hanger-on suggests that the Queen (accused of adultery and set to be executed herself in the morning) be sent for: “She should be able to put a cock to a face!” However, “Master Secretary” pragmatically saves the day by describing distinguishing features on each man’s hands: “Norris had a scar on his palm… the left palm. You’ll have to feel their fingertips. Mark’s will be calloused from the lute strings. Weston bit his nails…”
This darkly comic exchange could be from a Monty Python sketch; instead it appears in the second part of Wolf Hall, a RSC production playing at the Winter Garden till July 5th directed by Jeremy Herrin and adapted by Mike Poulton (in close collaboration with Mantel –more on this later.)
The Queen is of course Anne Boleyn, and “Master Secretary” is none other than Thomas Cromwell, a figure in Tudor history who until quite recently was popularly regarded as a ruthless political hack who helped support Henry VIII’s tyrannical rule.
This all changed (for those of us who aren’t Tudor historians) when Hilary Mantel wrote Wolf Hall in 2009 and its sequel Bringing Up The Bodies in 2012. Both books went on to become bestsellers as well as each wining the Man Booker Prize – everyone seemed fascinated by the character Mantel created: a pragmatic and clever spin doctor who rose from humble beginnings and seemed to always be two steps ahead of everyone else in Henry’s court – until he wasn’t. There is now a BBC miniseries – starting Mark Rylance and (currently being shown in the US on PBS) in addition to the current RSC production. These two adaptations interpret the books and the character of Cromwell in very different ways, something that Mantel herself has acknowledged but praised in a recent article for The Daily Beast: “I’m pleased that they are so very different. They both take advantage of their mediums.” While the BBC miniseries is full of flickering candlelight and close-ups of Mark Rylance’s soulful eyes, the dramatic productions are swift and clever, historical romps that capture the humor and irony of Cromwell’s internal voice.
Many of the characters (although well-developed) become increasingly ridiculous as the production moves on. We begin to laugh at them and not with them. The tone of humor shifts in Part II, actively fighting back the impending cruelty and tragedy of Anne’s death with slapstick humor, sarcastic ghosts, and irreverent servants. Even the lighting shifts to a more colorful palate. This choice was double edged just like the sword used to decapitate Anne and her admirers – we lose any sympathy for those at court in their scheming and stubbornness, while feeling more and more empathy for Cromwell (played with subtle precision by Ben Miles) who has to put up with them all.
Henry is played by Nathaniel Parker as man-boy, strutting about the stage; Cromwell manipulates him almost too easily. One moment Henry is moping about because of a “bad” dream that Cromwell quickly makes “good” through the power of simple persuasion; the next the King is the physical epitome of “puppy-love” describing his new infatuation, Jane Seymour. Parker is enjoying this part immensely and finds the humor even in Henry’s rages – at one point he throws a temper tantrum because he can’t pick up a document with his full jousting armor on.
Anne Bolyen (Lydia Leonard) though certainly charismatic and determined, becomes a parody of herself in Part II, unable to see beyond her narrow-minded ambitions or listen to Cromwell’s pragmatic suggestions to save her life. The frustration on Cromwell’s part during their final scene together is palpable. Ben Miles’s expressions during this scene make it quite clear that he is tempted to just shake Anne and tell her she is a stubborn fool – a feeling that much of the audience shares.
Assorted advisers and courtiers move in and out of favor, but each one is equally inept and incompetent in Cromwell’s eyes, and he sifts through them easily. This is a court where Blackadder’s Lord Melchett would feel right at home.
However, in the character of Cardinal Wolsey, the brilliant Paul Jesson is perhaps the only actor that is able to walk perfectly the line between humor and tragedy.
Cardinal Wolsey, Cromwell’s employer and mentor who falls from Henry’s favor, is full of sarcasm and biting wit. Alternatively optimistic and pragmatic, he realizes too late his days are numbered. Thankfully, though Wolsey dies in Part I, he is still very much present in Part II, as one of the funniest and wisest ghosts perhaps ever to appear in a RSC production:
“Do you ever see Thomas More, where you are now? You know, sometimes I forget he’s dead.”
“Let’s say… we move in different circles.”
It makes you wish Hamlet’s father had zingers like that. There are some wise cynics in this court of fools. Mary Bolyen (Olivia Darnley – who also plays Cromwell’s wife beautifully) and Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead) have some of the most darkly humorous lines. They know Anne Bolyen all too well, and their remarks about her are clever but biting. When Cromwell gives Jane some gold thread she responds:
“I expect Lady Anne will take it from me. We’re embroidering initials on everything she owns. ‘H’ and ‘A’ intertwined […] ‘H’ and ‘A’ – so it says ‘Ha ha!’ – all over her undergarments. Unfortunate, don’t you think?”
It is important to note that Mantel has worked closely on this production, during the writing process, rehearsals and moves from Stratford to the West End and now to Broadway. She was in the audience when I saw the productions, and has spoken extensively about the positive experience of working alongside Poulton and the cast: “There’s a free interplay between working on the novel and the plays. The actors have been very tolerant of me: There’s a sense we are all members of something together.” Poulton has equally good things to say about their collaboration, so unique in the theatre community. In a New Republic piece, he is quoted saying: “We got on straight away. It was only because of Hilary’s generosity in saying that while she had created these characters, they were waiting to leap off the page. We’ve fired each other up. Theater is her great love: she just has that instinct, the eye for detail that a production needs.”
With one final book to finish, The Mirror And The Light, about Cromwell’s downfall, it will be fascinating to see how much Mantel’s writing is influenced by these productions. Mantel herself, who carries along two notebooks to most rehearsals and performances – one for her notes on the production and one for notes on The Mirror and the Light is already seeing the benefits of being closely connected to these productions: “I’m convinced the book will be better for my involvement with the shows. Things I’m writing now provide insight into what happened earlier. There have been instances where I’ve been able to feed information to the actors which changed that night’s performance.”
Although the humor can at times work against the inherent tragedy of the action of the play, these productions are overwhelmingly enjoyable, impeccably acted and directed historical romps through the Tudor court. The success of these productions is proof that in mutually beneficial collaboration with the author, best-selling books can transform into successful and exciting pieces of theatre. I’m very much looking forward to Part III.
When not directing or taking in all-day productions of the more obscure Shakespeare histories, Alex is a Humanities teacher at Avenues: The World School in New York City. Educated on both sides of the Atlantic, with a BA from Barnard College and a Masters from Oxford University, Alex will be returning to the UK this summer to direct "Death Actually: a (nec)romantic comedy" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.