'Wolf Hall': Mantel's Cromwell and Henry VIII Rewrite History

04/10/2015 12:33 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

If the 21st century seems fraught with peril over religious zealotry, the 16th century was no less so. In Wolf Hall, an engrossing two-part stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell and the reign of King Henry VIII, a turning point in history is vividly brought to life with all the drama and intrigue of a modern political thriller.

Mantel has achieved an extraordinary feat for a fiction writer. Simply by looking at events from a different angle, she has upended the traditional version of an old story and in the process turns a lawyer once regarded a villain into a hero, a canonized cleric into a conniving fanatic, a lusty king into a shrewd ruler, and an exploited girl into a cunning little vixen.

With a splendid ensemble cast led by Ben Miles as Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII, and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn, and smartly directed by Jeremy Herrin, the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Wolf Hall is Shakespearean in scope and ambition and is an insightful study into the labyrinthian workings of the human mind.

Faithfully adapted from Mantel's novels by Mike Poulton and staged in two parts -- part 1 roughly covers the novel Wolf Hall and Part 2 its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies -- the plays create a dramatic intensity that makes one forget it all happened almost 500 years ago. One doesn't have to be versed in the politics of Tudor England to become absorbed in the plays. Duplicity, deception, and double-crossing in corridors of power are not confined to any one historical period.

At the outset Cromwell is in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, the Pope's man in London and also Henry's Lord Chancellor. The King is married to Katherine of Aragon and they have a daughter, Mary. But Henry is desperate for a son and is convinced Katherine cannot provide one. His eyes have fallen on Anne Boleyn, sister of his former mistress, who promises him a boy.

But there is the problem of what to do with Katherine, who was previously married to Henry's deceased brother. The King has been reading his Bible and finds in Leviticus a prohibition against a man marrying his brother's wife. Henry is convinced this is grounds for an annulment, but neither the Pope nor Thomas More, who is given to self-flagellation and is never happier than when a heretic is on the rack, are persuaded.

Wolsey, who had earlier earned the wrath of Anne by breaking her betrothal to a young noble, argues the King's case with the Pope but in the end cannot win him an annulment and this proves his undoing. But even in Wolsey's fall from influence, Cromwell remains a faithful servant, and that loyalty commends itself to the King who takes him on as royal counsellor.

It is Cromwell who will eventually navigate the political and religious minefields and see Anne Boleyn crowned Queen of England. And when she is unable to give Henry a son and the King's roving eyes turn toward Jane Seymour, it is Cromwell who will find the evidence of Anne's adultery that puts her head on the block.

In the process Cromwell also provides Henry with the rationale for breaking with the Pope and establishing what will become the Church of England. He also manages to find a place on the scaffold for More and a quartet of courtiers who had made sport of Wolsey's decline at court.

When last we saw these same characters on the stage, in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, More was portrayed as a martyr and Cromwell the evil lackey of an amoral king. As Mantel has explained in interviews, she has simply looked at the same set of facts from another point of view. And the stage version of Wolf Hall brings that perspective into sharp focus.

Miles is superb as Cromwell. From his first appearance, Miles' eyes are constantly darting about the stage, never missing the smallest nuance of what is being said or the smallest gesture, his mind constantly at work. He is a lawyer unafraid to speak the truth, but who chooses his words carefully, whether explaining to the King the economic advantages of not going to war or how he has done an old enemy a kindness by obtaining his execution by beheading.
Parker is majestic as Henry VIII, jovial and more fond of hunting and jousting than dealing with affairs of state, but also a ruler genuinely concerned about his soul and his legacy (and who always has time to sign a few more execution orders).

Lydia Leonard is calculating and shrewd as Anne, a woman who knows how to get a man, if not to keep him. She can be imperious, a queen for whom command comes easily, but who inevitably overplays her hand.

There is not a weak link in the cast. Paul Jesson is sanguine yet candid as Wolsey, the butcher's son who became a prince of the Catholic church, and John Ramm is a study in outraged piety as More. Lucy Briers is haughtily contemptuous as Katherine of Aragon and Leah Brotherhead is demure as Jane Seymour, the frail lady-in-waiting who will become Henry's third wife and give him the son who will briefly succeed him, but who will die in doing so.

Mantel's novels are also the source for a TV version of Wolf Hall now being aired on PBS, and the third volume of her projected trilogy is in her computer. Although we all know how it ends for Cromwell, it is one of the most anticipated books in publishing. One can only hope it will find its way to the stage as well.