The reign of English king Henry VIII (1509-1547) – full of palace intrigue and illicit lust – is the stuff of soap opera. It has already produced several popular television series, including the early 1970s miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII and the even more popular late 2000s Showtime drama The Tudors. Most recently, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels about Henry’s political representative Thomas Cromwell have become very popular indeed, inspiring both a miniseries and this stage adaptation. At its best, this version carries you along like the trashiest soap.
Thank goodness that Wolf Hall sustains that suspenseful, brisk pace for much of its long running time. Those moments when the pace slackens are truly dangerous, as one may be lulled into an exhausted sleep. But this Wolf Hall is surely more galloping than many of Shakespeare’s history plays, no small achievement.
Director Jeremy Herrin’s fluid staging ably assists in keeping boredom at bay. Designer Christopher Oram’s ground plan is a part of that, but unfortunately Oram has a tendency to wrap his flexible ground plans in stately but drab walls. This is another set design in that line – so not my thing. However, there’s no denying the beauty of Oram’s costume design, which is a lush marvel of period detail.
As Cromwell, Ben Miles gives us a cautious and enigmatic man, in a performance that is surprisingly vivid and charismatic. Also terrific is Paul Jesson as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, giving this showy statesman an appropriately flamboyant portrayal.
This production has certainly whetted my appetite for the miniseries, especially since one of the greatest actors of the day, Mark Rylance, plays Cromwell in that version. Ben Miles is very good indeed, but let’s be honest, it’s like competing with Meryl Streep. Also, the material seems more suited to the kind of context that long-form television is much better at providing. So, recommended, but by no means essential theater-going.
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To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.