As Thomas Cromwell, the Machiavellian mastermind behind Henry VIII, Ben Miles surveys the comings and goings at court with a watchful reserve that shifts imperceptibly into murderous stealth.
A survivor who happens also to be a ruthless tactician, he moves like a shark whose fin is spotted by a swimmer only as teeth are clamping down on his leg.
The astonishing thing about Miles' Cromwell is that he doesn't ever relinquish his humanity even as he does away with his rivals one by one under the cover of protecting his excessively connubial king.
In this, Miles is following the lead of author Hilary Mantel, whose sprawling fictional portrait of Cromwell in the Booker Prize-winning novels "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" has given rise to the Royal Shakespeare Company's excellent — though by no means problem free — two-part production, staged with impressive logistical command by Jeremy Herrin.
A huge success at the RSC's home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England (where I first saw it last year) and later in London, this adaptation by Mike Poulton, operating here under the single title "Wolf Hall," opened Thursday at Broadway's Winter Garden. (The British miniseries version, which recently began airing on PBS, is its own entity.)
Cromwell hasn't inspired much affection in historians, but Mantel keeps an open mind. She doesn't exculpate him of his crimes, but she stands in awe of him as a self-made man. Sympathy might be too strong a word, but it's through his eyes that Mantel takes in this tumultuous chapter of Tudor history.
A commoner by birth, Cromwell relied on the shrewdness of his intellect and his preternatural ability to stay one step ahead of his disdainful, higher-born adversaries — at least for the span presented here.
The play begins with the demise of Cardinal Wolsey (Paul Jesson), Cromwell's mentor, who is punished for his failure to obtain a divorce for Henry (Nathaniel Parker), and ends with the death of Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), Henry's formidable second wife, whom Cromwell frames as an adulterous schemer after working so hard to make the union possible.
In between, Cromwell goes from being Wolsey's right-hand man fearing for his life to being the king's chief adviser. It's a frenetic journey, full of politics, religion and enough sex and violence to satisfy the most depraved tastes.
This brings us to the most salient shortcoming of this adaptation. Mantel hasn't completed her trilogy, so Cromwell's story remains unfinished. At the end of the marathon, after countless heads have been lopped off, his is still firmly attached to his neck.
Death of the protagonist is not a requirement. But in using Anne's story as a way of structuring the drama, Poulton loses sight of Cromwell's inner life. Her plot crowds out his character.
Mantel, writing in the more capacious form of the novel, is able to give us a little bit of everything. She animates the history but she also imagines what history leaves out, the childhood scars, the adult conflicts and grief. A dramatist, even one working with more than five hours of stage time, has to be more selective. Poulton curtails the private saga so that the public drama doesn't have to be unduly abridged.
Miles, however, makes the most of his opportunities to reveal Cromwell's conscience. Even when marshaling false evidence against Anne, he doesn't transform into a monster. This is partly because it's hard to make definitive judgments about anything with so much ambiguity and crepuscular activity in the storytelling. But we also see what he is contending with.
His brooding suggests he's playing chess not just against the dangerous queen, who increasingly has her back to the wall, but also against the ever-more volatile king, who doesn't appreciate delay, as Wolsey's story never lets Cromwell forget. (Henry, enraged at Anne's inability to provide him with a son, has become smitten with Jane Seymour, played by Leah Brotherhead.)
Here's one measure of just how good Miles is: After spending Easter sitting through both parts of "Wolf Hall" (separated by a dinner break), I returned to my friend's apartment just as the first episode of the TV version starring Mark Rylance was beginning. Rylance is an actor I hold second to none, but I found myself resisting his portrayal in the early going — Miles for me had become Cromwell.
The miniseries is a more intimate and psychological experience than the RSC production, which is less meditative yet more vigorous. But the RSC has this kind of epic storytelling down to a science. As my companion commented, "These may not be the best actors in the world, but they can't be beat for clarity."
One doesn't leave the theater with much insight into the darker motivations of Parker's Henry. But it's easier to imagine the desire for his royal favor — and the fear and trembling that ensued once it was provisionally obtained.
The more a character is open to different historical interpretations, the more enigmatic the portrayal. In the end, it's hard to condemn Anne Boleyn, though we see what she is capable of. This is a credit both to the adaptation and to Leonard's ferocious performance.
It struck me as odd that "Wolf Hall" would be produced in the cavernous Winter Garden — the former home of "Cats" and "Mamma Mia!" — but Herrin and his ingeniously minimalist design team utilize the space brilliantly. His staging is presentational but never distant, pictorial yet always made of flesh and blood.
But how much "Wolf Hall" can one nation outside the Commonwealth stand? Apparently, quite a bit when you consider the number of Anglophiles, prestige-hounds, royal soap opera addicts and ugly divorce rubberneckers among us.
Of course, it helps that this production, even with its narrative limitations, is so fluidly pulled off. But I for one am relieved that "Hamilton" is on its way to Broadway. We might not have a king disposing of wives as though they were leased cars, but we have plenty of historical intrigue of our own to sort through.