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…. People open their hearts to you. They tell you all sorts of things. But you tell them nothing.
So Cromwell doesn’t have confidants. His beloved wife Liz dies of the “sweating sickness” early in the story, along with his two daughters, and he does not replace her. He will not be exposed by personal intimacy and he knows all too well that he lives in a world where confidences are betrayed. He spends too much time filching other people’s privacies to risk exposing his own. He trusts his ward Rafe Sadler and his son Gregory but his attitude toward them is paternal and protective. He does not burden them with his doubts or his yearnings, which means that we are not allowed much access to them either.
Hence, the fundamental problem of the RSC’s stage version now on Broadway. Poulton writes in his introduction to the published script that he imagined the task of adapting Wolf Hall as being “like taking apart a Rolls-Royce and reassembling the parts as a light aircraft.” The analogy is revealing. In its scale, Wolf Hall is more a Boeing than a Cessna: twenty-three actors playing forty-one named parts over almost six hours of playing time between its two halves. It is a great technical feat to get it aloft and keep it airborne for so long. But the air is not really the right place for a piece of theater. It has to be grounded in a psychological reality. Poulton notes:
Some of the most memorable images in the books are formed in Cromwell’s head: his reflections, his plotting, his private anguish, and, most of all, his barely contained laughter.
On screen, we can get some notion of what is in Cromwell’s head by tracing the flickers of fear or triumph or humor that the camera catches on Rylance’s long, melancholic, and otherwise impassive face. On stage, that simply can’t be done. If it is to be more than a high-class pageant, the stage version has to find some other way to get under the skin of the story, some richness of language or some wonder of theatrical invention that, for all its impressive technique, the RSC’s production does not possess.
The story, after all, is essentially familiar. It has always been too rich to let lie between the covers of history books. It has everything: sex, violence, and religion; the lurid, the tragic, and the grotesque. Cromwell’s career is inextricable from the politics of Henry VIII’s bedchambers. Through him we can trace the main events of England’s bizarre progress toward the Protestant Reformation: the failure of Henry’s wife Katherine of Aragon to give him a living male heir; Henry’s conviction that he has been cursed because Katherine was previously married to his own brother; the fall of the mighty lord chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, when he cannot secure papal approval for the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine; Henry’s declaration of himself as head of the church in England and marriage to the aggressively ambitious Anne Boleyn; the execution of the dissident Sir Thomas More; Anne giving birth to a daughter (the future Queen Elizabeth) and then suffering two miscarriages; the accusations that Anne committed adultery with men including her own brother; the executions of Anne and her alleged lovers; Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour.
Cromwell is in the middle of much of this action. As Wolsey’s loyal right-hand man, he nearly falls with his master but places his supreme talents as a lawyer, banker, administrator, and plotter at Henry’s disposal. He takes power by ridding his master of the inconveniences of Katherine, More, and ultimately Anne. Mantel’s two novels (and hence both adaptations) take the story up to this point of triumph; the third, The Mirror and the Light, which will take Cromwell to his own execution, is a work in progress.
The urge to dramatize these events stretches back over more than four hundred years. William Shakespeare and John Fletcher wrote Henry VIII around 1613, though their play stops diplomatically short with the joyous christening of Elizabeth. Cinematic versions abound, not least because the story is fair game for everything from knockabout comedy (Charles Laughton in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII) to pompous melodrama (Richard Burton and Geneviève Bujold in Anne of a Thousand Days) to agonized morality tale (Robert Bolt’s successfully filmed play on Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons). On television, the 1970 miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII created, on both sides of the Atlantic, an appetite that has been fed most recently by the glitzy Showtime series The Tudors, which ran from 2007 to 2010. The most immediate question for any new dramatic retelling is: What’s new?
The common answer is that Cromwell himself is new, that a sympathetic portrait of a previously reviled figure is startling in itself. As Jim Dwyer’s recent piece in The New York Times puts it in its opening sentence: “Suddenly, after 500 years of infamy and obscurity, here comes Thomas Cromwell….” But there is no half-millennium of either obscurity or infamy. Cromwell has certainly been a hate figure for Catholics—the schemer who took England away from the true faith and the killer of the saintly Thomas More. In the protest culture of the 1960s, it was easy to see More as the brave dissident and Cromwell as the evil apparatchik: Cromwell is More’s persecutor in A Man for All Seasons and an utterly unscrupulous upstart in Anne of a Thousand Days.
But precisely because he was a villain to Catholics, he has also long been a hero to Protestants. Cromwell (who had his own company of players) was treated well in early-seventeenth- century drama. In Henry VIII, his eventual fall is prefigured as a martyrdom in the advice he is given by the defeated Wolsey:
Let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s,
Thy God’s, and truth’s. Then if thou fall’st, O Cromwell,
Thou fall’st a blessèd martyr.
In the even earlier anonymous drama from the end of the sixteenth century, Thomas Lord Cromwell, Cromwell is indeed a martyr, destined in death “to rise to unmeasur’d height, winged with new strength.” His execution is a tragic mistake—at the end, as the axeman walks in with his head, a belated messenger arrives from Henry with a reprieve and even Cromwell’s enemies are left wishing “would Christ that Cromwell were alive again.” This strain of sympathy for Cromwell runs all the way up to The Tudors, in which James Frain so recently played him with many of the same qualities that Mantel’s version highlighted. He was politically ruthless but personally kind, clever, conscientious, and opposed to unnecessary cruelty.
In any case, who cares? You don’t sell more than three million copies of two dense literary novels, as Mantel has done, just by rehabilitating an unjustly tarnished reputation. The refurbished Cromwell must be speaking to something in contemporary culture and the job of the adapters is to figure out what that something might be. They must do so knowing that whatever it is, it is not primarily about religion. The religious background is important in both versions: More’s relentless pursuit of heretics, Cromwell’s sympathy for, and manipulation of, Protestant reformers, the willingness of those reformers to support Anne because she is on their side, Henry’s genuine conviction that God is punishing his sin. But it matters as historical setting, not as contemporary passion. There is no religious shortcut to engagement with these dramas, no assumption that Catholics will hiss Cromwell and cheer More and that Protestants will do the opposite. Some other connection must be forged.
What makes Mantel’s Cromwell appealing to readers, audiences, and TV viewers is that he is rather like most of them. He is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell would have been of limited interest. His virtues—hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else—would have been dismissed as mere bourgeois orthodoxies. If they were not so boring they would have been contemptible. They were, in a damning word, safe.
But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes more oligarchic, middle-class virtues become more precarious. This is the drama of Mantel’s Cromwell—he is the perfect bourgeois in a world where being perfectly bourgeois doesn’t buy you freedom from the knowledge that everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment. The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s weakness but in his extraordinary strength. He is a perfect paragon of meritocracy for our age. He is a survivor of an abusive childhood, a teenage tearaway made good, a self-made man solely reliant on his own talents and entrepreneurial energies. He could be the hero of a sentimental American story of the follow-your-dreams genre. Except for the twist—meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?
This terror is what we need to see on stage or screen and it’s what the TV version expresses much more powerfully than the theatrical adaptation. Some of this is a matter of choices about what to dramatize. While Mike Poulton’s version for the RSC and Peter Straughan’s for the BBC and Masterpiece broadly pick the same set pieces, there are important differences. Poulton chooses not to play out on stage the sudden deaths of Cromwell’s wife Liz and young daughters. We see his grief in retrospect and Liz appears later, rather ineffectually, as a ghost. For the audience, sympathy for Cromwell’s grief is constrained because we have seen very little of Liz and nothing of the girls. Even the one very early scene in which we get some sense of the bond between Cromwell and his wife is oddly played down in performance.
In the published script, Liz is talking about Katherine of Aragon’s tears, and Cromwell asks, “I’ve never made you cry, have I?” She looks at him for a long time and then replies, “Yes you have. But only with laughter.” In performance, these lines are simply dropped, as if there is not time to dwell on the relationship.
In the television series, by contrast, the relationships between Cromwell and his wife and daughters are beautifully established and their appallingly sudden deaths are heartbreakingly enacted. Rylance shows us this shock entering Cromwell’s soul and we know in every subsequent scene that he carries it deep within him. The momentary crumpling of Rylance’s face when he sees his daughters dead is like the opening of a crack in the public façade he has built so well.
The investment in these scenes pays large dividends. They establish Cromwell as indeed a middle-class man, his sweet domesticity in utter contrast to the sexual intrigue he will encounter at the court. And the suddenness of the deaths establishes better than anything else how capricious this universe really is and how little Cromwell’s decent personal values can protect him against its cruelties. Those cruelties are not just natural: on screen, unlike on stage, we see religious dissidents burned and, in a carefully brief but highly effective scene, Thomas More having a heretic tortured in More’s own house.
The television version is also stronger visually. The RSC’s staging is very well lit with clear, clean white light allowing the sumptuous costuming to establish the Tudor world on a mostly bare stage. But in the television series, light is an unforgettable player in the drama. Everything is—or at least appears to be—shot with natural light and when this is not daylight, it is flickering firelight or softly glowing moonlight or the chiaroscuro of candles in the gloom. This works very effectively to establish the historic atmosphere but it matters even more for the way it takes us into a world where things are seldom clear or clean, where every light has its accompanying shadow.
And sometimes, the difference between the two versions is simply in the way they are written, acted, and directed. Take, for example, a superbly conceived scene that is, on paper, very similar in both adaptations. Cromwell has been sent by Henry to tell Katherine that the king is to be declared head of the church in England, giving him the power to annul their marriage. Katherine is seated but her frail daughter Mary, who is to be made a bastard, is standing beside her chair. Cromwell sees that Mary is ill and suggests that she sit on a stool. Katherine, wishing to show their resolve, insists that Mary stand. After some bitter dialogue, Mary faints. Cromwell is ready for this—he reacts instantly and gets her safely onto the stool.
What is going on in this small scene? The story is progressing, of course—we are learning of Katherine’s unflinching determination to insist on her royal rights and of the problem of what to do with Mary. But we are also learning about Cromwell. The underlying dramatic question is how much we are learning. On stage, we are learning two things—that Cromwell is essentially kind and that he anticipates what is about to happen. Ben Miles takes hold of Leah Brotherhead’s tiny, fragile Mary and sets her gently onto the stool. It is a straightforward act of decency.
On screen, the scene tells us many other things. Yes, Cromwell is being kind to Mary. But he is also in a battle of political wills with her mother, who is still a queen and who still expects to be obeyed. On stage, Cromwell asks Mary gently, “Won’t you sit, Lady?” On screen, he addresses not Mary but his adversary, her mother: “Madam, your daughter should sit.” Before Mary actually faints, he moves decisively to grab the heavy stool and places it next to her. He more or less commands her: “Will you not sit down, Princess Mary?” And then, to allay her embarrassment, he says gently, “It’s just the heat.”
In the way Rylance plays this scene, we see not just that Cromwell’s instincts are kind, but that his kindness has come to be wrapped up in political strategy. He is controlling the room, asserting himself against the queen, and he is being nice to a princess who may be down today but who, in this topsy-turvy world, may have power over him someday. On screen, this one small scene has layers of motivation and psychological drama that it lacks on stage.
At times, indeed, the RSC version seems to go out of its way to make Cromwell less complex. This is especially so in the playing out of Cromwell’s relationship with More. On screen, Anton Lesser’s superb More is at once nastier and more sympathetic. We see the victims of his ruthless campaign of torture and burning against those who wish to read the Bible in English, but we also see More at home, treating the women in his life with the same kind of tenderness that Cromwell showed toward his wife and daughters.
More and Cromwell are wary rivals, but they are also similar kinds of men, more like one another than either is like any of the aristocrats around the court. The shifting dynamic of their relationship as Cromwell rises and More falls is captured in a brief exchange that both versions draw from Mantel. More has given up the chancellorship in an attempt to retire into private life and avoid Henry’s demands that he support his breach with the papacy. Cromwell asks him what he will do now. More says, “Write. Pray.” Cromwell’s reply is: “Write just a little, perhaps, and pray a lot.”
Between Rylance and Lesser, this is a hugely telling moment—the rapier wit is also a stiletto to More’s throat. Cromwell is being funny, clever, and outwardly friendly. He is also delivering a threat. The full complexity of his qualities is woven into a single line. Yet in the stage version, this moment, though written into Poulton’s script, is completely thrown away. It is as if there was a fear that it would make Cromwell too unlikable. This is of a piece with a larger decision—whereas on screen we are drawn fully into Cromwell’s ruthless entrapment of More into the self-incrimination that justifies his execution, we get little sense of this on stage.
There is a similar exchange in the second part of the stage version. Now it is Anne Boleyn, whom Cromwell has done so much to elevate, who must be torn down. Anne and Cromwell have been allies, not just because they have needed each other, but because they too are alike. Both are upstarts, leaping over the established hierarchy. Both take advantage of a social fluidity that would previously have been unthinkable. As the imperial ambassador to London, Eustache Chapyus, puts it in the second episode of the TV series, “A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be…” The sentence does not need to be finished: the possibilities are endless. Now things are moving against Anne and it is this very fluidity that endangers her. She makes the mistake of threatening Cromwell by reminding him that he is a creature of Henry’s desires: “Those,” she says, “who are made can be unmade.” On screen, Rylance makes it clear how ironic the line is, how easily it can be turned back on the queen he has helped to make. On stage, this irony is all but lost.
The decision to flatten out the stage Cromwell in these ways is understandable. Things are complicated enough already. The head-spinning logistics of moving the huge cast on and off the stage, of suggesting multiple locations with a minimum of props, and of keeping a clear line through convoluted events present a formidable challenge. Poulton’s adaptation and Jeremy Herrin’s direction meet that challenge admirably. It is not surprising that in doing so they decided to keep Cromwell relatively simple, allowing the always absorbing Ben Miles, as Cromwell, to plot a clear path from good intentions to nasty means. If clarity is the main goal, this works.
But clarity is not really the point. Rylance’s watching eyes see everything clearly. But in the haunted hollows of his face is etched the knowledge that it is not enough even to see everything. He can watch his world’s capricious ways with life and death, he can even shape them to his advantage, but he can never make himself safe from their unending malice.