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Hilary Mantel, the star of Wolf Hall
Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived. School kids learn the fate of Henry VIII's six wives in this chant. At the end of the daylong Wolf Hall Broadway premiere on Thursday, at the restaurants in Rockefeller Center where a lively celebration for the epic holding court at the Winter Garden Theater was underway, my hands were clasped in those of Nathaniel Parker, the actor who so winningly portrays Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, and we were singing it in unison. Wolf Hall, based upon historic fiction by Hilary Mantel, focuses on the period in his reign when the king, smitten with the sexy Anne Boleyn, concocts a strategy for ridding himself of his wife of 18 years, Catherine of Aragon, and then tiring of Anne in favor of Jane Seymour, finds Anne guilty of treason in the form of adultery. That costs the new queen her head. As to kings having their way, it doesn't get juicier.
I say to Nathaniel Parker, Aren't there better ways to get rid of women?
He says, "From Henry's point of view, he needed an heir. This was political because otherwise, there would be wars. What else could he do?"
Then we spoke of the drama, the daylong journey with the king and his problems: I say, not a moment was boring, or extraneous. "That's because of the director, Jeremy Herrin," Parker said. He had played the king with this Royal Shakespeare Company production originating in Stratford-on-Avon, and London. "But we have been waiting for this night on Broadway."
Aided and abetted in his endeavors by Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII pales in political machinations to this lawyer, the son of a poor blacksmith, scarred by the tragic deaths of his wife and daughters through illness. Cromwell grows in Machiavellian deeds in the course of the play. Seated at The Sea Grille, the Cromwell actor Ben Miles was holding his own court, but rose to greet Hilary Mantel, in town for a few days to sign books and attend a dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera House. The actor said American audiences seem to understand the weight of this moment in King Henry's reign even more than the British do, that he literally invented the Protestant religion in order to divorce his Catholic wife. Ben Miles also noted of Cromwell, he's a survivor.
Hilary Mantel's novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, are also the basis of a superb PBS Masterpiece Theater with Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII, airing concurrently with this Broadway production. That was unintentional, I am told. But Hilary Mantel is enjoying it all, "It's my life," she said. It is rare for writing to be king.
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