Wolf Hall, Parts I and II, and Russian Samovar

The Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hilary Mantel’s books on the court of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, is the scintillating two-part “Wolf Hall." This king is driven (at least in Part I) by his heart. He needs to get his marriages annulled under the Catholic Church, which leads to the Reformation. Characters speak at times in modern short-hand. “Thank God!” Thomas More. “No, thank me,” Thomas Cromwell.

At the center isn’t More, Henry VIII, or Anne Boleyn, but wily advisor to the king, Thomas Cromwell. The BBC miniseries has Mark Rylance to play Cromwell like he’s constantly having to save his own neck. Ben Miles is sleek and smoother, more of an Eddie Haskell and a Republican. Courteous but deadly, he sounds like David Brooks explaining the Bush administration’s war.

Lydia Leonard is a thrilling Anne Boleyn, who may be young but knows her power. She protects religious “heretics,” and unfortunately can’t guess what’s coming. The king’s new mistress was always kept under wraps until the current queen could one way or another be deposed and the next one installed. (A funeral dissolves into a wedding onstage.) In Part I, handsome Nathaniel Parker’s King Henry is sweet as a puppy. In Part II he feels the effects of gout, though he is still somewhat of a pushover for women. Was this ever possible? “Henry the Eighth to six wives he wedded: one died, two survived, two divorced, two beheaded.”

Hilary Mantel has said in interviews that she “leaves certain questions unsolved” as would only be honest to do in writing about the Middle Ages. Her revisionist Thomas More is not A Man for All Seasons. “He was a great man apart from when he wanted to burn people alive,” Mantel has said.

The mostly empty stage facilitates swirling costumes and skipping, joyous dance. You wonder whether there really was a sixteenth-century dance step where they snapped fingers in unison. Such is the authority of Hilary Mantel that you accept that she discovered rather than invented anything.

After a didactic first half hour, the remaining five hours plus fly past. The production was condensed for Broadway, yet, you feel nothing important is left out, including two-faced sister Lady Mary Boleyn, the royal lapdog, and Mark, the lute player. Leah Brotherhead is a freshly imagined Jane Seymour. Can’t wait for the third in the trilogy: The Mirror and the Light.

Table 16, where Joseph Brodsky wrote.

Between Wolf Hall I and II at the Winter Garden, it was a treat to eat pelmeni with dill and sour cream, tender smoked salmon and sturgeon, and "herring in a fur coat" (layered beet salad) at the nearby Russian Samovar, a non-glitzy piano bar.

Our corner banquette, table 16, is a shrine to poet Joseph Brodsky. At another table sat Bolshoi ballerina Maria Kochetkova, wearing sweat pants, dining with a fellow dancer before a performance.

The Russian Samovar was nightclub Jilly’s in the Sixties, Frank Sinatra's hangout. If Frank’s ghost walked in, he’d appreciate in the stairwell that a graffitied wall from the old Jilly’s was left intact.

No comments: