If the prospect of sitting through an elaborate, five-and-a-half hour historical play set in the court of Henry VIII, even with a lengthy break, seems only slightly more appealing than, say, a stint on the rack in the Tower of London, take heart. “Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2,” now at the Winter Garden Theatre after a sold-out run in London, attacks this well-trod terrain from the devilishly compelling viewpoint of a supporting player, Thomas Cromwell, the king’s imperious right-hand man.
This fresh take, based on Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning fact-based novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” banishes the usual stodginess by shining a spotlight on power grabs, betrayals, and illicit carnal encounters. It’s a heart-pounding, real-life game of thrones, though the sex, blood, and gore are mercifully left to our imaginations.
Some may quibble, and with good reason, that this endeavor values prurience over intelligence, omitting weighty historical ramifications of the events, but the plays are supremely entertaining nonetheless.
Featuring stunning production values, incisive dialogue, and fine acting from a company of 23, “Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2” dazzles on every level — as a taut drama, history lesson, and gossip hotbed. Under the keen direction of Jeremy Herrin, the action is crisply paced, choreographed with the grace and precision of a ballet. The minutes fly by and at final curtain, we are left exhausted yet strangely hungry for more.
The true genius behind this enterprise is Mike Poulton, who skillfully adapted the impossibly dense novels, which total well over a thousand pages and include lists and flow charts to help keep track of the characters. Somehow Poulton has untangled the knotty thicket of a plot and extracted key moments for maximum dramatic effect, while preserving much of the wit and bite of Mantel’s language. In a narrative lousy with Thomases (I counted seven), Henrys, and Marys, and where a single character may have multiple titles, confusion is kept to a minimum.
On the most basic level, “Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2” provides a refresher on standard Tudor history. King Henry VIII (played with gruff vulnerability by Nathaniel Parker), after enduring a 20-year marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) that produced no male heir, shifts his sights to the “notorious virgin” Anne Boleyn (a formidable Lydia Leonard). When Cardinal Lord Chancellor Thomas Wolsey (Paul Jesson) fails to get the marriage annulled, Henry enlists Cromwell (an accomplished Ben Miles, a tad too attractive for the role), a low-born yet cunning lawyer. He brilliantly succeeds and soon proves indispensable to the king.
Tragically, Anne also bungles in the male heir department (she bore a child named Elizabeth and suffered several miscarriages), whereby the volatile Henry becomes obsessed with Jane Seymour of Wolf Hall. Anne is sent to the Tower, found guilty of adultery, witchcraft, and incest, and is famously beheaded in 1536.
Besides masterminding the coronations of Anne and Jane, Cromwell is instrumental in convincing Parliament to grant Henry control of the church in England, ending hundreds of years of bowing to the pope and following Rome’s convoluted brand of Catholicism.
“I search my Bible,” says Cromwell. “I can’t find where it says monks. Or nuns or purgatory or fasting or relics or priests who can change bread into the body of Christ… or the pope.”
History has painted Cromwell as a crafty interloper and ruthless opportunist. Yet “Wolf Hall Parts 1 & 2” shows his softer side as well. We learn that he miraculously rises above his hardscrabble life as a blacksmith’s son from Putney. He is tortured by the ghosts of his beloved wife and daughters, victims of the “sweating sickness.” As portrayed here, Cromwell is not only Henry’s confidante and lackey, but also a humanitarian with England’s best interests at heart.
The austere set by Christopher Oram, dominated by a vast, brutalist concrete fortress punctuated by a stylized cross, allows the performers and sumptuous period costumes to shine. The moody lighting and electrifying music heighten the excitement.
Even though plot points are well known, many take on an added ironic potency. Anne’s infant daughter Elizabeth is dismissed as “a useless, mewling, ginger puke-pot of a girl” and later branded a bastard. Savvy theatergoers know, even if the characters haven’t a clue, that one day she will assume the throne as Queen Elizabeth I, reign for 44 years, and preside over England’s golden age of seafaring, literature, and drama.
WOLF HALL PARTS 1 & 2 | Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway, btwn. 50th & 51st Sts. | Through Jul. 5; Part 1: Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m., Sun. at 1 p.m.; Part 2: Wed. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 6:30 p.m. | $27-$250; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Each part: two hrs., 40 mins., with intermission