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(photo by Johan Persson)

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES begins with music and dance before moving on to more dangerous activities (photo by Johan Persson)

Winter Garden Theatre
1634 Broadway between 50th & 51st Sts.
Wednesday - Sunday through July 5, $49.75-$122

Last season the Brits thrilled Broadway with Shakespeare’s Globe’s doubleheader of Twelfth Night and Richard III, performed as they were in the Bard’s time. This season’s biggest British theatrical event is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s twin bill — but this time they’re not doing Shakespeare. Instead, the Royal Shakespeare Company brings us its widely hailed stage production of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize–winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set in the just pre-Elizabethan England of Henry VIII. The two plays, which run more than five hours together and can be seen either on separate nights or the same day (matinee and evening, with a break in between), follow the trials and tribulations of lawyer Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), a blacksmith’s son, as he deals with Cardinal Wolsey’s (Paul Jesson) battle with King Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker), who wants an annulment from his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) so he can wed Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) to provide an heir to the throne. The based-on-fact intrigue also involves the conniving, ambitious Stephen Gardiner (Matthew Pidgeon), the dangerous Sir Thomas More (John Ramm), the soon-to-be Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (Giles Taylor), Henry’s former mistress Mary Boleyn (Olivia Darnley), and untrustworthy court musician Mark Smeaton (Joey Batey). In the first part, Cromwell tries to balance his life with his wife, Lizzie Wykys (Darnley), and children, Gregory (Daniel Fraser) and Grace, while negotiating between the cardinal and the king. In the second part, Cromwell’s power has grown, as he is now adviser to the king, who has married Anne. But Cromwell has learned that the new queen, who has been unable to produce a surviving male heir, might have been unfaithful to the king, who has turned his attention to Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead). It all comes to a head in a gripping scene in which Cromwell grills the men who have purportedly bedded down with the queen.

Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) battles with Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) in second part of WOLF HALL  (photo by Johan Persson)

Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles) battles with Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard) in second part of WOLF HALL (photo by Johan Persson)

Expertly adapted by Mike Poulton (A Tale of Two Cities, Fortune’s Fool), the stage version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is very different from the recent six-part Masterpiece television series, which stars Rylance as Cromwell, Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn. Director Jeremy Herrin (The Nether, The Absence of War) keeps things stark and spare, with all of the action taking place on Christopher Oram’s minimalist set, which is usually empty, save for an occasional chair, desk, or table. Scene changes are indicated by Paule Constable’s lighting and the actors walking to the edge of the stage, then turning back around. Oram’s costumes are elegant and dramatic, seeming to have stepped right out of classic historical paintings. The rounded front of the stage juts out into the audience, making for a spectacularly intimate experience, particularly for those in the first few rows. The acting is exceptional, led by Miles’s (The Norman Conquests, Betrayal) sensational portrayal of the complex Cromwell, who would make quite a chief of staff in contemporary America. Parker (The Audience, Speed-the-Plow) is a marvelously devious Henry VIII, Briers (Top Girls, Some Kind of Bliss) is fiery as the embittered Katherine, Jesson (The Normal Heart, Mr. Turner) brings a warm sense of humor to the cardinal, and Joshua Silver, in his Broadway debut, is steadfast as Cromwell’s loyal ward and chief clerk, Rafe Sadler. Jealousy, desire, power, ambition, and vainglory collide in Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, another must-see theatrical event from across the pond.

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