There is event theater and there is event theater, and for a certain sort of well-educated, well-read, upper middle class (or just upper class) Londoner, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall was the event they’d been waiting for, enough to pull them out of their sleepy suburbs at 90 quid a head and sell out the first month’s run of the (first half of the) Hilary Mantel double bill practically before it had opened. And there I was, surrounded by people wearing very nice clothes, laughing at all of the “in” English history jokes (“Oh that Jane Seymour! Ha ha ha!”) and British geography jokes (“Yorkshiremen eat Londoners for lunch! An endowed university in Ipswitch! Ha ha ha!) and somehow seeming very pleased that they knew how these things were going to end in the end … or, rather, in the present.
With a nearly bare set – just walls of concrete with crossed lines of light in the back (symbolizing the influence religion on everything) – the actors were left to pull magic from the air with little more than their words, some really luscious costumes, and occasional walls of flame. And personalities really came through – Henry (Nathaniel Parker), who wants so much to be liked (but perhaps confuses lust and kingly duty) – Anne (Lydia Leonard), who has a clear vision of what it takes to achieve power – and Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), who is unswervingly loyal and yet still very, very human.
Or that, I think, is what Hilary Mantel would have us think: for, in this production, none of these creatures comes across as human; only when informed by our memories of her book. It’s a beautiful historical pageant, full of color and movement, but devoid of real emotion. We clapped and cheered and were entertained and perhaps dazzled, but I simply was not in the least bit touched by this show. It’s a shame: there is so much in the source material that I had really hoped it would be there, and while I can’t deny the professionalism and production qualities were tops, I want to feel when I pay that much money. And I didn’t. So while this was an entertaining night out, it was ultimately forgettable, though very popular in a sort of upper class fangirl way. People who want to go to the theater to feel good about themselves and their position in life, this show is for you: if you want to learn a little something about human nature, for my money you’d do much better to see Birdland at the Royal Court.
(This show is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 15, 2014. It continues through the summer, running in rep with Bring Up The Bodies. Tickets can be bought through the RSC site or Ticketmaster but, really, just read the book unless you can get one of the £10 day seats.)