Wolf Hall is a little like that supposedly hot date with whom you didn’t have a terrible time, but you know you’re going to make an excuse not to go out with again. The story of how King Henry VIII divested himself of wife #1 in order to marry wife #2 is sexy, fascinating and historically significant. (Greetings, Church of England!) The tale has been interpreted many times with great success. (Love you, Keith Michell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers!) The twist this time is that we see events through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. (Farewell the oft portrayed saintly image of Thomas Moore.) Yet even with this legacy, reputation, and potential, there’s something a little off-putting about the results of this rendition.
Based on two popular award winning novels by Hilary Mantel and brought to life by The Royal Shakespeare Company, Wolf Hall is certainly splendid looking. Beginning with a lively dance, the rich costumes and period music draw the audience in. As adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin, Part I moves at a brisk pace injected with a little humor. However, the storytelling is patchy and potentially confusing for the uninitiated. For example, Jane Seymour delivers a single line in a spotlight, a moment which only holds significance to those who know she eventually became Henry’s bride #3.
In Part II, events are told even more episodically. Additionally, while Ben Miles makes a pensive Cromwell, we’ve learned so little about his personal life and credo, we have no sense of him as our guide. The script becomes a series of call and response scenes in which we have no emotional investment. Anne Boleyn may hold the future of the realm in her six-fingered hands, but whether she loses her head or embroiders another pillow is of equal interest and concern.
Sadly, Wolf Hall is neither an insightful piece of historical fiction nor a thoroughly entertaining piece of pageantry. It is, however, 5 1/2 hours long and upwards of $150 a ticket.
Wolf Hall Parts One & Two are playing in repertory at the Winter Garden Theater through July 5, 2015. For tickets and information, visit http://wolfhallbroadway.com/tickets/.