A Double Bill of English Historical Drama
On April 9, 2015, Wolf Hall: Parts One and Two opened at the Winter Garden Theater. This double bill of plays went by the names Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies during its London run, as those are the names of the novels on which the plays are based. Those productions opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company and then transferred to the West End’s Aldwych Theatre, where the run wrapped up on October 4, 2014. The shows then transferred to Broadway with previews beginning March 20, 2015. The novels were also adapted into a BBC mini-series starring Mark Rylance (Jerusalem, Boeing Boeing) as Thomas Cromwell. After airing in the United Kingdom on March 8, 2013, that five part mini-series aired in the United States on PBS starting April 5, 2015, coinciding with the Broadway run of the show. The stage adaptations were written by Mike Poulton based on Hilary Mantel’s novels, with music by Stephen Warbeck. The shows are directed by Jeremy Herrin, an accomplished British director who is making his Broadway debut with these shows in repertory. On Broadway, the role of Thomas Cromwell is played by Ben Miles, who was previously seen on Broadway in the triple bill productions of The Norman Conquests, which were also transfers from London.
When the reviews came out for Wolf Hall, it was clear that most critics loved the show, though a few were on the fence. Ben Brantley of The New York Times was in the supporting camp, deeming the subject matter of British history to be extraordinarily good gossip. Though admitting it is a high brow work, he proclaims these stage plays, unlike the novels and mini-series, to be a whole lot of fun. David Cote in Time Out New York likewise enjoyed the productions, calling Ben Miles’ performance as Thomas Cromwell “cunning,” and delighting in the almost six hours of arguing between pope and crown. David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter remarked on the low odds that this 1,000 page pair of novels would amount to popular success, but deemed the productions and acting ensemble to be first rate. Furthermore, Robert Kahn of NBC New York found the ensemble to be finely tuned, praising the productions while admitting that they demand intense focus from the audience to keep up. Linda Winer from Newsday was less in complete favor of the shows, calling Jeremy Herrin’s direction handsome but unsurprising, seemingly bored with the overabundance of material on this historical period.
Tony Nominations and Box Office Response
Wolf Hall: Parts One and Two received an incredible eight Tony Award nominations. The double bill received nominations for Best Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for Ben Miles, Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play for Nathaniel Parker, Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play for Lydia Leonard, Best Scenic Design of a Play, Best Costume Design of a Play, Best Lighting Design of Play, and Best Direction of a Play for Jeremy Herrin. Therefore, although critics and awards nominees alike loved the show, that response does not seem greatly to have affected the interest of audience members in buying tickets to the productions. In the last reported week of box office figures, the week ending May 10, 2015, the show brought in $630,653, which is only 51.56% of its gross potential. The highest week thus far in the run was its first full week of performances, when it reached 64.38% of its gross potential, and the lowest thus far was 42.81% of its gross potential in the week ending April 12, 2015, just after opening. Therefore, it seems that the British history diehards will buy tickets to this show independent of recognition by the Tony committee and critics, perhaps assuming the positive reviews that it inevitably received. More casual theatregoers, however, will not be persuaded to attend this show even with such praise, perhaps intimidated by the heaviness of the material or the length of the two productions.