The Royal Shakespeare Company is no stranger to “event theatre” on Broadway. Its eight-and-a-half-hour epic The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby walked away with the 1982 Tony Award for Best Play and is spoken about amongst theatre aficionados who saw it as a tour de force not soon forgotten. Since then, countless other multi-part (or just very long) productions on and off-Broadway have captured audience’s imaginations (and their cash), including but not limited to Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia in 2006, Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests in 2009, Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz in 2010, and BAM’s approximately five-hour productions of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, both of which became hot tickets in their limited runs earlier this season.
There’s something about a marathon evening (or string of evenings) at the theatre that elicits, practically upon the purchase of tickets, a self-congratulatory pat on the back for theatergoers willing to shell out the big bucks for multiple parts of the same play or to commit more than the usual two hours and change required at your ordinary Broadway show. If the play’s a bore (as most of Coast of Utopia was), the experience can be an insufferable one. But if it’s as hearty and well-produced as Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2, which opened on Broadway this month after acclaimed runs in Stratford-upon-Avon and in London’s West End, the time commitment becomes less a detraction and more a virtue, allowing a chance for a writer – in this case Mike Poulton adapting Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall (Part 1) and Bring Up the Bodies (Part 2) – to put us under his spell and to transport us to another time and place altogether.
Set in the court of King Henry VIII, the Tudor king who ruled England from 1509 to 1547, Wolf Hall mainly tracks the journey of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from humble beginnings as the son of a blacksmith to a career as a lawyer and, eventually, King Henry’s chief minister. Part 1, Wolf Hall, focuses on Henry’s desire to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine of Aragon and marry the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. Part 2, Bring Up the Bodies, details Boleyn’s reign alongside Henry and her eventual demise.
Jeremy Herrin’s production gallops along at a breakneck pace, introducing Mantel and Poulton’s extensive cast of characters with incredible economy and managing, somehow, to give a good many of them a surprising amount of depth. Poulton wisely keeps the scenes in his adaptation short and sweet so that Herrin’s staging can keep characters moving on and off stage at a steady clip, sometimes entering and exiting through the sides of the house by way of a triangular extension at the foot of the stage, an inviting piece of construction that brings the play’s drama even closer to an audience. Christopher Oram’s vast stone unit set, cold and imposing when it needs to be, is warmly lit (by Paule Constable and David Plater) during the play’s more fiery scenes (Oram also designed the production’s sumptuous costumes).
The company of actors, led by Bed Miles (a veteran of Broadway’s The Norman Conquests) as Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII, and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, is first-rate. Miles manages to imbue Cromwell with ample humanity despite his hand in monumental, often destructive plots at the king’s behest. Wolf Hall is essentially his story, so it’s important that Miles keep the audience on his side; fortunately, he does.
Parker is a robust presence as King Henry, intermittently jolly but slyly manipulative when it suits his whims, and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn cuts straight to the heart of this complicated, notorious queen, who, once she married the king, grew increasingly ruthless despite numerous attempts to produce a male heir to the throne. Other supporting players stand out as well, especially Paul Jesson, who’s magnificent as Archbishop Thomas Wolsey and in a handful of other roles, as well as the commanding Lucy Briers as Queen Katherine and Leah Brotherhead as Jane Seymour.
The chief accomplishment of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production is that it makes nearly six hours of historical drama feel as vital and vigorous as any other show on Broadway this season. Poulton’s adaptation is the must-see play (well, two plays) for grown-ups this season, picking up astounding momentum as it reaches its stunning open-ended conclusion. Though Herrin’s staging is visually impressive, what ultimately shines through is Poulton’s well-crafted text, which achieves moments of comedy in spite of its heavy subject matter, and the mastery this company of actors has over the material. If there’s any downside to this production, it’s that Mantel’s third and final novel in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, is still forthcoming (and therefore still awaiting theatrical adaptation). One can only hope that after Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2 shutters this summer it can return down the line with its third part appended. Six hours, it turns out, is still not enough in the presence of this fine production. Nine hours? Now that’s more like it.