6th November 2017
Type of Production
Author: Kevin Proctor
Adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton from Hilary Mantel’s novels, the play sets out to untangle a spiral of history that will be, in part, overly familiar and, in part, obscure to much of its audience.
The territory this piece covers features the uproar surrounding King Henry VIII’s wish to divorce his first wife, Katherine, for the seductive Anne Boleyn which is an ever popular slice of history that’s been exposed over the centuries for fiction, films and costume dramas. However, this time, the central character is neither Anne, Henry or Katherine. In this telling, they’re merely supporting roles with Thomas Cromwell being the pivotal figure.
Firstly, I feel the need to comment on the adaptation itself as it plays such a crucial part in my conclusions for this production which has been re-crafted (and I use that term loosely) from the novel and the TV drama series of the same name. My most apparent criticism for the piece being its length - to still be sat in the auditorium with nothing about the action giving any sign of wrapping up at 22:30 was rather tedious. The script is a very slow starter and then only dances around meaty issues without taking a firm grip of them. That said, probably due to my zeal for the Tudors, I did still find myself in a state of pleasing suspense for some parts despite being aware of how evidently mild the substance was. Having an unlikely hero at its centre, following suit from the books and the TV drama, does offer a look in at the Tudors from a fresh angle though Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are portrayed in the same tone that you’re likely to have previously seen them with Katherine of Aragon being the only exception as she’s far feistier and irate than we’re probably used to.
The other point is the flow and storytelling of the piece, it’s incredibly jumpy and a lot of our time was spent trying to figure out where we are and working out who or what’s being spoken about. At one point there was a funeral procession which seemed to appear out of nowhere and it wasn’t until a couple of scenes later that we were told whose funeral it was which diluted its impact.
Director, Nick Sample, works with a vast cast of characters (embodied by a changeable ensemble of 29) and covering many convolutions of plot, history and law, “Wolf Hall” gives the impression of always traveling light. The set by Margaret Norris is static with a feel of spacious surroundings and conveys many different external and interior locations with the main impression appearing as a courtyard come hallway of a gothic, majestic Tudor building.
Making the most striking imprint of the visuals is the magnificent wardrobe, earning them a hearty round of applause with the opening court dance. This production was undoubtedly a showcase piece for Mike Shaw and his Wardrobe team and they made sure they did just that, giving us first-rate and accurate attire to appreciate.
Deliciously wilful and serpentine are Sarah Nelson and Lara Hancox as sisters Mary and Anne Boleyn respectively. Each are given the opportunity to demonstrate their fine skills as actresses as these feisty siblings. We rarely see or hear of Mary in other Tudor works and this piece scratched the surface for me making me want to investigate this rarely displayed Boleyn sister a little further.
Geoff Holman put in a significant and grounded act as Cardinal Wolsey, making it near on impossible to not hang on his every word who skilfully exposed the rather concealed wit of the script and masterfully carried a man of honourable status and corrupted policies.
Matthew Banwell left a memorable impression portraying Thomas Howard, evidently a fine thesp who we’ve no doubt only just seen the surface of his capabilities!
The show isn’t above the occasional nudge in the ribs for the historically aware, for example, at the end of the first half, a hitherto inconspicuous young woman (Elizabeth Lomas) introduces herself by saying: “Oh, I’m nobody. I’m only Jane Seymour” which sparked a beautifully indicative reaction from this packed house.
Mark Butt takes on Thomas Cromwell, the dominant role of the play, who depicts the ordinary but exceedingly ambitious man with a collective ease. We’re in comfort and good hands with Mark at the helm as our conscience and guide for the evening putting in a mighty performance as this troubled figure. But, I cannot prevent my feelings towards the approach of this character being at the centre. The qualities that make a good adviser — discreet, efficient, willing to melt into the background — don’t necessarily make a good dramatic lead for a play. Mark is onstage almost the entire time and his portrayal is absolutely steadfast and extremely reliable, but, and this is fault of the adaptation I fear, it’s not quite enough of a gripping white-knuckle ride for a piece of theatre.
I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to taxing history lessons at school, at least then, Henry VIII had the antics of his six wives to keep lessons interesting, it was Cromwell and Wolsey who would fail to sustain my interest, however, that’s now been flipped on its head and they’ve now become rather intriguing to me – could this be because I’m older or is this the result of Hilary Mantels writing? I’d feel better if we go with the latter so let’s ride with that.
Spun as a web of tittle-tattle, “Wolf Hall” pours out secrets of states while reminding you that well-wielded gossip can be a potent and potentially lethal political weapon.