The Explosions from Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

based on the novels by Hilary Mantel, written by Peter Straughan, and directed by Peter Kosminsky
BBC/Masterpiece/PBS, six episodes, April 5–May 10, 2015

Wolf Hall Part One and Wolf Hall Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies

adapted by Mike Poulton from the novels by Hilary Mantel, directed by Jeremy Herrin, and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Winter Garden Theater, New York City, March 20–July 5, 2015
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux
Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn and Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall Part Two: Bring Up the Bodies, on Broadway this spring

To all the qualities that make him such a remarkable actor, we must now add that Mark Rylance is a great lurker. In the mesmerizing BBC/Masterpiece television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s phenomenally successful novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Rylance plays Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who became, next to his master King Henry VIII, the second most powerful man in the troubled England of the 1530s. Rylance’s supremely watchful Cromwell is often at his most magnetic when he is loitering with intent. He is off-center—the soberly dressed man standing to the side while gaudy aristocrats strut their stuff in the Tudor court, the modest figure by the pillar in the church, a face in the crowd at a momentous execution.

Rylance can watch proceedings in so many ways—anxiously, quizzically, with an air of quiet satisfaction or wry amusement or detached contempt—that shots of him looking are often as intensely dramatic and as informative as any scene of scripted dialogue. They tell us who Cromwell is—a man who makes his way in a vicious world by observing more sharply, scrutinizing more carefully, creating scenarios and watching how those he must please or destroy will act them out. The cliché is vindicated: Rylance’s eyes are windows through which we catch glimpses of Cromwell’s soul.

But you can’t do this in the theater. The stage has no place for lurking. There is no camera to draw us away from the main action and toward the drab figure standing almost in the wings. We are the watchers—we are not interested in having someone do our looking for us. If sumptuously dressed couples are dancing a gavotte, our eyes feast on them and miss the still man on the margins. If a queen is about to be beheaded, we are not interested in the bureaucrat half-hidden in the curious crowd. If we are ever to know what is going on in that figure’s mind, he must, at some point, tell us directly or else we must be allowed to overhear him confiding in someone else.

But neither of these strategies would really work for a stage version of Cromwell. Having him address the audience would make a man whose essence is discretion and self-containment far too up-front. In the character notes she prepared for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage adaptation of her novels, now published with the text of Mike Poulton’s script, Hilary Mantel instructs Ben Miles, the fine actor who plays Cromwell:

No one knows where you have been, or who you know, or what you can do, and these areas of mystery, on which you cast no light, are the source of your power….…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.