TIO NYC: Wolf Hall & Book Of Mormon

Now that Telluride’s official ski season 2015 is really and truly over and done, you may be heading out of town for a Big City fix. A little splash-splash in a cultural bath perhaps? If the Big Apple is on your agenda, consider booking tickets now to “Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two.”

wolf hall

While this past weekend you were bombing down the mountain one last (boo-hoo) time, a friend and I climbed a (metaphorical) mountain in New York – a play, two plays actually, back to back: The Royal Shakespeare Company’s masterful adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s bestselling novels about the life and times of King Henry VIII and his wily consigliere, Thomas Cromwell. In the superstar ensemble cast was regular Telluride visitor Nicholas Day, who plays Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Anne Boleyn’s haranguing uncle.

Nick is a close friend of Jennie Franks Price, a former actor in London’s storied West End and founder and artistic director of SPARKy Productions and the Telluride Playwright Festival, (July 21 – July 26, 2015).

In brief, “Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two” is a tour de force of calculated restraint, a haiku of a production that throws the burden of proof exactly where it belongs: squarely on the strong, capable shoulders of its cast. The minimalist, but essential approach the show’s talented director Jeremy Herrin chose to tell Mantel’s intricate story, an Herculean feat from the get-go, is the theatrical equivalent of Tadeo Ando’s quietly elegant architecture; or the geometric abstractions of Bauhaus artists such as Mondrian and Malevich or the more contemporary work of Don Judd, Barnett Newman, or Ad Reinhardt. It is the music of John Cage (only more fun, at least for me). Or the threads of fashion designers such as  Halston, Calvin Klein, and Azzedine Alaia.

No frills. Lots of spills. Heady yes, but always fun to watch unfold.

Theorist and artist Robert Morris once defined minimalism as “parts… bound together in such a way that they create a maximum resistance to perceptual separation.”

Pull just one thread out of Herrin’s gorgeous tapestry, one character, one line of dialogue, one entrance, one exit, one dance, one piece of music, even the lighting (which worked as an invisible, but critical character) and the whole thing unravels. But that never happens.

Time flew – though both productions take 5 1/2 hours, with a half hour cut from the original London show – as we watched Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell do his worst to keep King Harry in wives. It was an Olympic performance – there was not an inch of air between the man and his character – executed with wit, grit, and unblinking honesty. 

We also bow to Nathaniel Parker, narcissist Henry VIII. Paul Jesson gives a flawless performance as the canny Thomas Wolsey, once deceased, the play’s eminence grise. And we stand at one cool remove (for our own good) from Lyndia Leonard as the Anne Boleyn, at once charmer and vixen. 

Was Anne guilty of adultery as charged? Were the men in Boleyn’s orbit guilty? Or was it just that they all crossed Cromwell by betraying Wolsey, his revered mentor, and paid the ultimate price.

The truth is buried with their bodies.

And Nick Day reports Mantel won’t tell. 

What I know is if at all possible you should not miss this production. The limited run is scheduled only through July 2015.

For a full review, check out what the Guardian had to say about the London production. (National reviews begin Thursday.)

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Lydia Leonard as Ann Boleyn
 Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell and Lydia Leonard as Ann Boleyn. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Wolf Hall is ostensibly the more difficult of the two to dramatise in that it covers a larger time span: roughly the eight years from 1527 to 1535 that see the rise of Cromwell – a Putney blacksmith’s son – to high office, as well as the downfall of his patron Cardinal Wolsey through his failure to secure an annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage. But these eight tumultuous years also witness the accession of Anne Boleyn to the throne, her failure to produce a male heir and the execution of Thomas More for his refusal to take the oath legitimising Anne’s position.

Poulton has an awful lot of story to get through but he succeeds in focusing on the key characters. In Mantel’s book, we see much of the action through Cromwell’s eyes. Here he is more objectively viewed but still totally compelling: a born financial fixer, a razor-sharp lawyer, a cunning court diplomat who even manages to put a positive spin on the king’s guilt-haunted dream about his dead brother. Ben Miles may not have the ugliness of which Cromwell is accused but he brilliantly conveys the watchful intelligence, the inner grief, the implacable isolation.

But all the main characters have a three-dimensional richness that stems from Mantel’s novel and that puts to shame a piece of costume-drama like TV’s The Tudors.

Paul Jesson’s Wolsey is wise, worldly, loyal to his followers yet possessed of a vanity that enables him to say “The king cannot run the country without me.” Nathaniel Parker’s Henry VIII is also no mere bloat king but a man who combines a troubled conscience with an awesome sense of power: in one terrifying moment he turns on his trusted Cromwell with a warning of what will ensue if he fails to make More capitulate. And, even if Lydia Leonard’s Anne Boleyn is a sharp-toothed vixen, her volatility is born of desperation.

No adaptation can quite capture Mantel’s gift for atmosphere that shows itself in such phrases as “There is a tentative, icy sun; loops of vapour coil across the river; a scribble of mist.” But Herrin’s production propels the action forward with superb economy:…

For a preview, watch this trailer:

Continue reading here.

As for “The Book of Mormon,” well, you’ve probably read the raves. And yes, the production is viciously hilarious, wholly irreverent, good, off-beat fun, but also obvious and wholly predictable out of the gate. Still, you will laugh out loud at the antics of the perky Latter-day Saints singing and dancing with aplomb while fiercely repressing gay tendencies deep in the African bush.

Go for a pause that refreshes.

Tickets here.


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