The first American staging of Wolf Hall, Mike Poulton’s 2014 adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s blockbuster novel about the passions and obsessions raging through Henry VIII’s court in Tudor England, premiered not in New York or Los Angeles, but right here in the Bayou City at Main Street Theater.
Artistic Director Rebecca Greene Udden delivers a delicious double feature of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. The audience plays the role of the voyeur, often eavesdropping on conversations between political rivals and allies, but always coming back to the interior thoughts of Thomas Cromwell, who explains the fall-out history of the Tudor court.
Wolf Hall focuses on the rise of Cromwell (Joel. F. Grothe) in the court of King Henry VIII (Blake Weir). His ascension is in tandem with the ambitious and scheming Anne Boleyn, convincingly played by Lisa Villegas, who will stop at nothing to displace King Henry’s current wife, Katharine of Aragon (Kara Greenberg), including forcing Cromwell’s beloved Cardinal Wolsey (Rutherford Cravens) out of power.
The storyline has been retold before, yet this production gives the storied tale new life. The balance of power between Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More is expertly dramatized as they lose and gain and lose power, and the use of ghosts to advise and chide Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up the Bodies is simply brilliant—an effective and at times comic way to illuminate the difficulties Cromwell faces during this era.
The Renaissance-inspired music, sound effects (rain that sounds like rain!), minimalist sets and costumes (sheer perfection with Margaret Crowley’ designs) come together as a kind of miracle, as this is not a huge, big-budget stage. But in a way, it's better. A small space always presents technical difficulties, but Main Street Theater adapted this play in a way that exploits the advantages of this set-up, and the audience absorbs the drama in a way that would not be possible in a larger theater.
Udden does a terrific job directing, showing Cromwell’s domestic, softer side in scenes where he interacts with his family. Grothe, who is likable even when in the thick of devilry, does the impossible as Cromwell—he wins friends and influences people even when his most stalwart supporters are losing their status, even their lives. In an age when revenge tragedies were all the rage, one can see how life inspired art.
The grotesqueness of the “trials” and executions is handled well and worth the price of the ticket. When the Duke of Norfolk (Tommy Baird) yells, “Bring Up the Bodies!” you cannot help but shiver. The stakes are high, and you know how low they can bring you down. It's excellent.
Many of the actors play multiple roles and the lines require a good mix of seriousness as well as comic relief. Will Sanders and Nathan Wilson give strong performances in their roles as Cromwell’s adopted and biological sons, and Laurent Prat as Christopher lends expertise in physical comedy as well. For me, Jonathan Teverbaugh’s performance as Harry Percy being pressured to claim he was married to Anne Boleyn in Bringing Up the Bodies after years being forced years ago to deny that marriage was one of the play's highlights, showing the fall out of so many figures in the wake of Ann Boleyn’s ambitions and Henry's obsessions.
As Cromwell so aptly summarizes, “The past changes all the time, depending on who is in charge."