Through the miracle of Tivo, I finally caught up with "WOLF HALL" on TV. All six hours on PBS. Last month, the Tiny Goddess and I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's stage version of Hilary Mantel's re-telling of the Henry VIII-Anne Boleyn saga onstage in New York, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two.
Unfortunately, I haven't read the original two novels (WOLF HALL and BRINGING OUT THE BODIES) on which the stage and TV versions were based -- the TG has -- so my understanding of the whole process of translation from source material to two completely different versions is limited. But what is remarkable is HOW DIFFERENT the two versions are.
Normally, I would predict that I would have liked the stage version more. I love theatre, and an all-day immersion – two three-hour parts -- in a great, all-enveloping play can be a wonderful experience: certainly innately more exciting than six hours of television, spread over as many weeks. (I spent two wonderful 'days' immersed in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and in ANGELS IN AMERICA.) So I was really looking forward to the Royal Shakespeare's all-day stage treatment. In fact, we planned a whole vacation around it.
But, to my surprise, the TV version was much stronger and more effective. I did enjoy the stage version, but it didn't knock me out. The staging was brisk and effective, with lots of movement, sudden lighting changes, and some real fire, but it wasn't magical. When I go to the theatre, to quote Blanche du Bois – "I want magic." I certainly expected it from the glowing reviews, but it didn't fully deliver. The stage adapter Mike Poulton and the stage director Jeremy Herrin do an efficient job of rolling out the famous story of Henry VIII's fixation on leaving a male heir to inherit the English throne, even if he had to go through several wives to do it.
Hilary Mantel's innovation is telling the tale from a new and interesting perspective: the focus in on Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's advisor and "fixer", not Henry himself nor Anne Boleyn nor Sir Thomas More nor Katherine of Aragon nor Jane Seymour nor Cardinal Wolsey nor any of the other famous players in this well-known story. And there is a lot of story to be told – WOLF HALL is 672 pages, and BRINGING OUT THE BODIES is 432 pages – and it is a complex tale about power, sex, violence, and religion in a time of political upheaval.
On stage, the Royal Shakespeare Company uses twenty-three stage actors playing forty-one named parts to present the play. The stage is the realm of Language, and the stage version offers almost a constant barrage of language and information to get the material across. There are a lot of characters to establish and keep track of. And they do a fine enough job by focusing on the character of Cromwell. I think that one of the reasons that WOLF HALL has struck such a strong chord with the modern audience is that Cromwell is a very modern kind of man. He is a survivor; a blacksmith's abused son who, through his intelligence and guile, has risen into the highest reaches of power in the kingdom. And he wants to stay there, even as many people – including his mentor Cardinal Wolsey – lose their power, and even worse. (Cromwell will get his come-uppance, presumably in Part III of Mantel's epic – THE MIRROR AND THE LAKE -- which is still to be published.)
Is Cromwell a calculating and unprincipled man, or just a pragmatic one, attempting to survive in a dangerous political climate while serving his King and his country? It is certainly a dangerous time for all. Part of the appeal of all versions of WOLF HALL is that is very much a "nest of vipers." Nobility-noir. WOLF HALL takes its title from Wulfhall, the seat of the Seymour family, named for the Latin saying: "Homo homini lupus – Man is wolf to man." And that is just the way the scheming unravels for six hours: betrayal on top of deception on top of treachery, with a little torture thrown in. The events covered are still riveting, controversial and troubling, even though they occurred almost 500 years ago.
While the stage version was all about the language, the TV was all about the visual. And what visuals! The TV version used authentic locations: no constructed sets. And gorgeous candlelit-only interiors. I could have sworn that they used the actual Tower of London for Anne's beheading – sorry for the spoiler – but it was another castle. The dialog is much sparser: adapter Peter Straughan and director Peter Kosminsky can use close-ups: an essential tool for telling a story of scheming, double-dealing, and layers and layers of moral complexity.
The visuals were not only beautiful, but they deepened – and improved -- the storytelling. Much more was made about Cromwell's background: his harsh upbringing, the deaths of his wife and children, his domestic life, etc. The TV Cromwell is much more relatable than the stage Cromwell whose character was not as carefully constructed.
One of the biggest reasons I preferred the TV version to the stage version was Mark Rylance. While Ben Miles, who played Cromwell on the stage in London and New York, is a good actor, I think Mark Rylance is a great one. It's the first time I've really seen him, though he is now the hottest stage actor in the world. I know people who consider his performances in JERUSALEM, TWELFTH NIGHT (as Viola), and RICHARD III to be among the best performances they've ever seen. He's won three Tony Awards in just five Broadway appearances, and one time, he was competing against himself. I cannot wait to see Steven Spielberg make him a big movie star as THE BFG.
I admit that I'm partial to British actors. When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have seen some of the greats onstage: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, Glenda Jackson, Vivien Leigh, Joan Plowright, Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi, Tom Courtenay, Nicol Williamson, Alan Bates, Ian Holm, Vivian Merchant, etc., etc., etc. I think Rylance just might be one of these greats. His performance as Cromwell is amazing. His ability to communicate complex emotions with a "still" face is positively Streepian. But he acts very humbly and simply, navigating through a morally complex universe in a way that the audience understands. He does a lot with very little, so that when he raises the intensity, he is riveting. I was smitten.
I've Tivoed A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, the 1966 Fred Zinnemann movie of the Robert Bolt play that covers much of the same material (except that Sir Thomas More is the good guy, and Thomas Cromwell is one of the bad guys). I haven't seen that one in years. I wonder how that will compare.
And, of course, the greatest irony of all – that only we in the future know – is that the female heir that Henry VIII is so reluctant to leave his kingdom to becomes Elizabeth I, perhaps the greatest English monarch of all.
It's quite something, how we're still fascinated with these characters, hundreds of years after the fact. And how amazing that Hilary Mantel found a new way to tell an old story. The TG tells me that's because the books are narrated in the present tense, which gives great urgency to the storytelling. I think I might have to read them someday.
Look at this:
PBS – "First Look" at WOLF HALL
Hilary Mantel – on Anne Boleyn
Mark Rylance and TV director Peter Kosminsky – on making WOLF HALL
Mark Rylance – a bit of his Tony-nominated RICHARD III
Mark Rylance – a bit of his Tony-winning 'Viola' in TWELFTH NIGHT
and for some real stage magic --
"THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY" – Part I of the famous Royal Shakespeare Company production – this is it: eight-and-a-half hours of theatrical heaven –