Wolf Hall is a blockbuster in the best sense: running nearly six hours, it chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) from his early and lifelong friendship with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Paul Jesson) to his domination of Henry VIII’s (Nathaniel Parker) court, specifically detailing his orchestration of Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) and later his indictment of Henry’s second wife, the “notorious virgin” Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard). Adapted by Mike Poulton from Hilary Mantel’s novels, this is a first-rate history play, juggling an immense amount of detail with astounding clarity and sustaining intensity and interest for its entire runtime.
Cromwell is a divisive figure and Wolf Hall does not swear allegiance to interpretive extremes: here, he is neither a Machiavellian mastermind nor a pure idealist, but a brilliant, caring, and ultimately pragmatic man whose manipulations lead to reform but maintain a regular body count. Mr. Miles is absolutely superb, giving a guarded performance, while the text allows him the space for a gradual and subtle transformation. Thus, we are rattled but not incredulous when Henry Norris (John Ramm), imprisoned in the Tower of London, appeals to the law of England and the once-bookish lawyer roars, “I wrote the law of England.”
There is also a suggestion that his motivations were less political and more personal: though we see him writing to Martin Luther—his closet Protestantism explaining his opposition to Katherine—more time is spent on the revenge of the ousting of Cardinal Wolsey, a lascivious but jovial man of God. The destruction of Boleyn, who in this rendering is guilty of all accusations of infidelity, is not so much for Henry’s sake than for that of his father figure, and Mr. Poulton and Ms. Mantel consistently depict Cromwell as fiercely loyal to his own. In one of the play’s quieter moments, Cromwell’s wife, Lizzie Wykys (Olivia Darnley), begs her husband amidst a fever that is seizing London, “Don’t die. Don’t leave me alone,” and then drops her prayer book and walks offstage as mourners enter with her coffin. For the remainder of Wolf Hall, he will be dressed in black.
The play is often serious and perceptive—there is a moment where Cromwell says, “The past changes all the time,” which is certainly true for the figure who was treated like a non-entity until he was given credit for the Reformation in the 1950s and afterwards inspired a polarity of revisionist opinions—but it is very funny, too. Cardinal Wolsey, played by Mr. Jesson as half-Lord Baelish, half-Falstaff, jokes as well as any barroom bawd, while Cromwell’s humor is drier: after a conversation with the zealot (and later Catholic saint) Thomas More (John Ramm), he notes, “He would burn Christ himself if He came walking up the Thames.”
Mr. Poulton and Ms. Mantel are least forgiving to Henry, who appears to be clueless and who mourns most of his decisions soon after they are made. The condemned Wolsey becomes “poor Wolsey,” the divorced Katherine “poor Katherine.” He is simply the one pushing the buttons that lead to the Reformation, but they have little to do with political savvy, religious conviction, or even regal will. This king, who would go on to drain the country’s coffers in a series of military excursions, is most comfortable boasting among fawning courtiers, as when he uses the word “war” like a verb: he plans to “war in France” in the same way others “summer” in the Hamptons.
Six hours of Wolf Hall are not enough; I could have easily devoured six more. Ms. Mantel has one more novel to write, and let’s hope that theatrical producers, taking a cue from their filmic counterparts, decide to split the final installment into two, like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. Towards the end of the play, Cromwell remarks that there are no endings, only beginnings. Whether or not this is true of life, it is not true of theater, and unfortunately for now we must content ourselves with this too, too short but endlessly satisfying production.