Monday, April 20, 2015

Review: "Wolf Hall" Parts I and II‏

History was forever changed by the reign of King Henry VIII (1491-1547). The six-time married monarch broke from the Roman Catholic church, defying threats of ex-communication from the pope and the authority of the Vatican, to establish the Church of England with the monarch as its head.

The historical legacy of this schism has been profound. In the centuries since, Catholicism and Protestantism have divided the Christian faith, sometimes coexisting peacefully, sometimes leading to violence (like in Northern Ireland), but never easily. Without this split, the history of our own country would be very different. After all, our 18th century Founding Fathers were all fiercely Protestant and it wasn't until the waves of late 19th/early 20th century Irish and Italian immigration that Catholicism even became a presence in the USA. It took more than 170 years for the USA to elect a Catholic president (John F. Kennedy) and we haven't elected one since (although we do currently have a Catholic Vice-President, Joe Biden). In Britain, the schism is much more acute: until just a couple of years ago, it was illegal for the British monarch to marry a Catholic (he or she could marry a Muslim, a Jew, a Wiccan, a Mormon, a Scientolgist, whatever, but not an RC).  Most of Europe is still Catholic to this day but Britain is the country that got away. And all because of Henry VIII.

"Wolf Hall" consists of two plays, based on the Man Booker Prize-winning historical novels by Hilary Mantel. The plays and books tell the story of how Henry VIII, whose Spanish wife Catherine of Aragon had been unable to give him a male heir and was getting past child bearing age, decided to divorce his wife and marry the much younger Anne Boleyn. Problem: only the pope could grant the king's divorce (really, an annulment) but the pope did not want to anger the powerful Spanish monarch and therefore denied the king's request. Frustrated and embarrassed at the limits of his own power, King Henry did the unthinkable:  he defied the pope. He broke with Rome. He gave himself a divorce. He married Anne Boleyn and then, when she too fails to give him a son, cut off her head.

Naturally, it was a lot more complicated than this, which is why the two plays together take up about six hours. Plots within plots, the vagaries of politics and personalities, the competition and balance of national, religious, and family interests, were interwoven in the historic schism that defines Europe, Christianity, and the world today.

Most importantly, while Henry VIII is remembered as the horny, tyrannical, pre-nup requiring monarch who divided Christendom, it was his chief counselor, Thomas Cromwell, who actually masterminded and piloted the direction of these historical events. He was the power behind the throne, the ghost in the machine (think Karl Rove/Dick Cheney vs. George Bush or Tywin Lannister vs. Joffrey). Cromwell is the main character of "Wolf Hall" and is as fascinating a character as Henry VIII. The son of a blacksmith, a working class kid who, through sheer brilliance and diligence worked his way into becoming Henry VIII's right hand man, Cromwell is a very sympathetic character. He loved his wife, was an amazing father, and served his king and country with absolute loyalty. In fact, he did so to a fault: Cromwell had anyone who defied the authority of the king tortured and killed. He blackmailed people, forced them to give false confessions, and ruined their lives. He did so, he believed, for a good cause -- namely, his king. And, I'm sure in the eyes of many an Englishman then and since, he rightly stood up to the pope. He believed, you might say, in the power of a unity monarchy, that kings should be able to rule and make their decisions 100% without papal interference. But, naturally, the results of the schism led to unpredictable problems, problems which "Wolf Hall" also examine.

This two-part play is a marvel. Performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Winter Garden Theater, it is a masterpiece of acting, staging, and storytelling. There is no real set: instead, it takes place mostly on a bare stage with just a few props, tables and chairs brought in at various intervals. There is also a very interesting use of fire that gives the play a wonderful atmosphere and many of the scenes are interspersed with beautiful dancing, and the costume are absolutely gorgeous.

But it is the British actor Ben Miles as the notorious Cromwell who is what makes these plays a joy. His performance is layered and complex, and the many emotions and thoughts of this complicated man are on full display but are only revealed through the actions of the plot. The writing is such that, just as soon as you you get to like Cromwell, he does something that horrifies you -- and yet you still like him. This is a play of surprises even though the history is well known. It is also, dare I say, a deeply feminist play (after all, it was written by a woman). Cromwell's wife is presented as the only woman who could command him, something the king very often could not do. Catherine of Aragon was a smart, strong woman who did not go quietly. And Anne Boleyn was no mere pawn but someone who ruthlessly destroyed anyone in her way.

History is created by the battle for power, the competition of interests, and the clash of personalities. "Wolf Hall" demonstrates this and more, and makes for thrilling entertainment.

P.S. If you can't make it to the Broadway production of "Wolf Hall" then you can watch it on PBS, starring the amazing Mark Rylance as Cromwell.   

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