Monday, April 13, 2015

Broadway Theater Review: Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2

A scene from Wolf Hall. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Richards Associates.

A Fresh Look at Henry VIII Through the Eyes of Cromwell
By Lauren Yarger
You’ve read the best selling novels by Hilary Mantel, you’ve been watching the PBS TV series with Mark Rylance and now you can enjoy even more insight into the court of King Henry VIII with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Broadway production of Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall, Parts One and Two (based on two of the three novels in Mantel’s series -- “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”) is adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin. It played to sold-out crowds in Stratford-upon-Avon and London and recently won the Olivier Award for Nathaniel Parker who stars as King Henry.

If you are a fan of this period of England’s history (as I am), you’ll enjoy this fresh look at the beginning of Henry’s desire to be rid of Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers, who practically channels the feisty daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand), his wife of 20 years who has produced the Princess Mary (Leah Brotherhead), but no sons to secure Henry’s line for the throne.

When Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), the beautiful sister of his former lover, Mary (Olivia Darnley), arrives from the court at Paris (where she just might have learned some sexual tricks as well as how to survive at court), Henry is besotted. 

Knowing the fate of her castaway sister, Anne refuses her favors without marriage. Henry tries to divorce Katherine, but she, her influential family and the Pope won’t cooperate. His long-time trusted counselor, Cardinal Woolsey (a comical Paul Jesson) can’t make it happen and loses his influence with the king and his vast fortunes in the process. Henry’s other long-time supporter and Lord Chancellor, Thomas More (John Ramm) also won’t get on board with what he feels is going against God.

Enter common-born lawyer Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles, who was in the Tony-Award-winning production of The Norman Conquests). With the help of Thomas Cranmer (Giles Taylor), who earns the title of archbishop of Canterbury, Cromwell guides Henry through his break from the Catholic Church, a divorce from Katherine and marriage to Anne. He loses walks away from his humble beginnings (Miles skillfully shows the characters transition in voice and movement).

Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, but when she fails to produce a son, Henry grows disenchanted and starts thinking that sweet, shy Jane Seymour (also played by Brotherhead) might make a lovely queen. Cromwell latches on to rumors of Anne’s inifedlity and builds it into a case of treason accusing her of having sexual relations with a host of people, including the court musician, Mark Smeaton (Joey Batey) and her own brother, George (Edward Harrison). 

The end of Anne (she is beheaded) also is the result of the plotting folks from Wolf Hall – the family seat of the Howard family: Jane’s parents John and Margery (Jesson and Madeleine Hyland) and Jane’s brother, Edward (Harrison). Anne’s uncle, Thomas Howard, the duke of Norfolk,  (Nicholas Day) is her supporter at the beginning.

Particularly fresh in this adaptation are most of the characters, seen from Cromwell”s perspective: Henry is self-doubting and insecure, Woolsey is clueless,  Anne’s a mean-spirited shrew, Jane is comically naïve (beautifully played by Brotherhead), More is a zealot. The women, probably seen by insignificant by Cromwell, don’t factor in the story as much as the men, however.

“The past changes all the time,” Cromwell says to an appreciative chuckle from the audience.

Katharine of Aragon is the only character who seems to play according to historic interpretation (and I really felt like Katherine herself was up there on the thrust stage with minimal sets designed by Set by  Christopher Oram, who also designs the costumes and who also just won an Olivier Award).

The scenes are expertly lighted by Nick Constable (Part One) and David Plater (Part Two) and mood is set by music composed by Stephen Warbeck and movement by Sian Williams. The opening number, in fact, is a burst of energy with characters positioning themselves in a dance for power.

Some pet peeves: It is a tad long at just under six hours, even for lovers of Henry VIII. Part One is three hours and Part two is just under. Streets noises are audible inside the theater and draw us reluctantly out of the 16th century. And ladies, don’t even bother with the rest room at intermission. The line stretches all the way back to Richard III’s reign. 

If you are a fan, you will enjoy the chats about England’s history taking place in and around the theater. If you aren’t up on the history of this period, you might become very confused. There are a lot of actors up there playing multiple roles, with minimal information about who they are in the program. And it is difficult to hear (sound design by Nick Powell) with the dialogue of Day and Leonard, in particular, being lost.

Each part includes an intermission and if you see both parts on the same day you will have about a two-hour break for dinner.

Wolf Hall plays at the Winter Garden Theatre,  1634 Broadway, NYC, through July 5. Peromance times vary. Tickets: $27-$250;; 800-432-7250.
A same-day general rush will be available at the box office for $39 each, with a limit of two (2) tickets per person. A limited number of student tickets will also be available for each performance for $27 per part, and will be available online at

Christians might also like to know:
-- Language
-- God's name taken in vain (even in Latin...)
-- Sexual dialogue
-- Ghosts

The full cast:
Joey Batey…. Thomas Wyatt/Headsman/ Mark Smeaton
Nicholas Boulton…. Duke Of Suffolk, Duke Of Norfolk
Lucy Briers…. Katherine of Aragon/Lady Rochford
Leah Brotherhead….Jane Seymour/Princess Mary/Lady Worcester
Olivia Darnley…. Mary Boleyn/Lizzie Wykys/Mary Shelton
Nicholas Day…. Duke Of Norfolk
Daniel Fraser…. Gregory Cromwell
Edward Harrison…. George Boleyn/Edward Seymour 
Paul Jesson…. Cardinal Wolsey/Archbishop Warham/Sir John Seymour/Sir William Kingston
Lydia Leonard…. Anne Boleyn
Ben Miles…. Thomas Cromwell
Pierro Niel-Mee…. Christophe/Francis Weston
Nathaniel Parker….King Henry VIII
Matthew Pidgeon…. Stephen Gardiner/Eustache Chapuys
John Ramm…. Thomas More/Henry Norris
Nicholas Shaw…. Harry Percy/William Brereton
Joshua Silver…. Rafe Sadler
Giles Taylor…. Thomas Cranmer/Sir Thomas Boleyn/French Ambassador
Jay Taylor…. Thomas Wyatt/Headsman

Mathew Foster, Benedict Hastings, Madeleine Hyland, Robert MacPherson …. Ensemble

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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