“What will we do with the King’s Heart?”
The possibility-packed question becomes the responsibility of Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), a lawyer and advisor to King Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker) in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Part I: Wolf Hall and Part II: Bring Up The Bodies directed by Jeremy Herrin and playing in repertory at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre.
I began in a box for Part I and then scored some dream-like seats (second row) in the orchestra for Part II. Initially what struck me was the great casting of the plays by Helena Palmer CDG. The roles that each character had to play in the kingdom became clear throughout the play due to that casting. I was never distracted from the story in this respect and there’s not an actor in the ensemble that I didn’t love for that reason!
There was a prominent advisor, Cromwell, the hand maneuvering the pieces on the chessboard influencing every direct decision the King makes and controlling the actions of any person who affects the King. There was a lot of conflict (you might say drama) with potential male-heir bearer queen wives (King VIII goes through several unsuccessfully). There is a removed fatherhood role the King takes in his own daughter’s lives (legitimate and illegitimate). There are soldiers, servants, maids, messengers and others. As the plays progressed I started to see how much power Cromwell wielded by being next-to the prominence of the King and leading him through marriages and a search for a woman who could bear a royal son.
I mainly find stories about royalty compelling because there are interesting and dynamic power wielding struggles and strategies being employed by the characters. I can’t say I find this one particularly romantic, in the female perspective, that’s for sure! There are no real heroines written into it…. even so, I liked observing Cromwell playing the love. It is surprising because although he begins in low status in life, and his job is a dark one making decisions to place harm upon others in order to protect the King… at times I was able to see his humanity and this made him a star. I started to see why his presence is necessary in nearly every scene. In order to tell the story of King Henry VIII the man who largely influenced the writing of that story is required – Cromwell – a man with an acute ability to pay attention to detail.
One image of Cromwell ‘playing the love’ that stays with me is when his youngest son Gregory (Daniel Fraser) waltzes onstage in a soldier’s uniform ready to go to battle with the King. Cromwell stands just behind him delicately touching the metal armor as if it was just a costume on a baby – but instead of pulling him out of harm’s way – he tries to compel the King to keep his son safe instead. It’s actually heartbreaking to watch; particularly because the well-known story begins with the death of Cromwell’s female family members.
Oh the costumes! Christopher Oram‘s costume design is another main reason to watch a period piece like Wolf Hall. The stage is minimal – a large mass of grey grounding that occasionally has fire roaring up through it (real flames – my jaw actually dropped in Act I like a child!) It is, therefore, the costumes and the imaginations and voices of the players that fill in the blanks of the story. The difference between a queen’s layers and robes and the more simple dress of the numerous maids following her is notable. The contrast of the simple design of Cromwell’s, often darker, clothing and the King’s elaborate velvet speaks to status as well.
It is the stripping of title and status in the lives of the women that spoke to me the most (being a woman myself). As unlikeable as Queen Anne (Lydia Leonard) is in her thirst for power and status… when she’s being taken down and her expectation of assistance with her daily tasks and her habitual action (use of her maids) is taken away from her I watched her realize that she had no choice but to crumble in silence and stillness. It is difficult to watch someone lose what they love most – with Cromwell the possibility of losing his son could leave him with no true loving relationships in life – only the cold reality of the pawns he uses around him. With Queen Anne the loss of her status is difficult to watch because it is only in attachment to the King that a woman seems to be able to protect her and her family’s interests in King Henry VIII’s world – whether the woman be innocent or savvy.
There is resolution of the question of the King’s heart by the end of the play… but I’ll remain silent on this end.
All the characters in this production are based on real people pulled up out of history and the actors breathed life into them. It was truly amazing to watch and educational too!
Next mission – check out another acting HERO of mine, Mark Rylance, in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall!