In the opening scene of the novel Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, young Thomas Cromwell has been "felled by his father: knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard."
It is a brutal and disorientating start to the book that sympathetically humanizes the self-made Earl of Essex. From his love of animals (dogs, horses, hawks) to his love of God, and his incredibly nimble legal mind, Mantel recreates and imagines an extraordinary life. Cromwell's journey winds from his father's Putney smithy to rooms adjoining King Henry VIII's own. His value was in his ability to get the result that the King wanted most from about 1525 until 1537: a divorce, a remarriage and thereby a son.
Since its printing in 2009, Wolf Hall has been adapted for PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, starring Mark Rylance in a career-defining role. Now, Theatre Jacksonville is mounting an iteration of Mike Poulton's ambitious, 32-character (23-actor) adaptation, directed by William E.P. Davis.
Jason Woods muses, "it is no small thing to want to son, "and [for the King] it is as if England's other affairs do not exist." Of the nuances in Cromwell's persona (as presented in the novel), Woods said, "Character complexity feeds me." The idea of a person for whom the wound is only scabbed over is an idea that he explored in his one-man presentation of A Christmas Carol and explores here. The idea is that regret, or fear of it, can provide a lifetime of motivation.
"If there is a weight, right or wrong, that I've given to my performance, it's the human part of it, it's the more tender conscience, the more sincere side of him."
In this production, much of Cromwell's early years and the gruesome relationship with his father are eschewed. Excepting the glee with which many of the nobles proclaim his base and common beginnings; they spend a lot of time roaring about shoeing horses.
In contrast, when Woods-as-Cromwell speaks, he imbues his words with the weight of a man who cannot speak freely, because of his social standing, and because he deeply understands that there are international and generational implications to changes wrought in the King's household. As courtiers trumpet about (and oh, the Duke of Norfolk is vile), Cromwell stays even-keeled, hands in pockets, a nice gestural nod to his position as a keeper of secrets, trying to think his way through the Gordian knot of problems with which King and country present him on a daily basis.
But Cromwell is not without allies-his most ardent mentor is the man whose fall paved the way for his own rise, Cardinal Wolsey (who also rose from humble beginnings).
Geoffrey King plays Wolsey with confidence and ribald humor. The Cardinal is magnanimous, "honeyed," eventually broken. His insults are exquisite and crudely delightful in the way only nastiness delivered by a Prince of the Church can be. (With possible exception of the painful "flat-chested" jokes, which, in fairness, are a part of the novel and certainly reflect the misogyny of the time.) And his fall from the King's grace foreshadows (as we know) the fall of almost all the magnates and social-climbers by whom Henry VIII is surrounded.
There are several deeply affecting moments in the play; among them is the utterance that strips Cromwell bare: His hoarsely whispered "I'll never leave you," to his wife Liz, just before she is taken by the sweating sickness. He stands with his back to the audience for just a moment, as the weight of the future seems to bear down on him.
Too, his contentious relationship with Thomas More, played by Tyler Hammond, with smug restraint, then with pious pain, serves to (in many ways) define Cromwell as a compassionate yet unyielding man.
In the book, the physical violence of which Cromwell is capable (and has committed) is hinted at through Wolsey's delectation of Cromwell's imagined misbehavior. "Thomas, what have you done, monstrous servant ... an abbess is with child-two, three abbesses. Oh, let me see, have you set fire to Whitfield?"
So too is this capacity for violence jauntily referenced in the play, though affable Cromwell pushes boundaries, a sharpness is always roiling beneath the surface. His rage explodes in startling, rip-through-the-theater fashion when he's confronting More. He's attempting to get the former Master Secretary to sign an oath acknowledging Henry VIII as the head of the English church. The papist refuses, though he knows it will mean his head. But Cromwell cannot countenance losing an intellectual juggernaut-and a man he personally respects-dying because "everything he was brought up to believe, he believes still."
There is a famous Hans Holbein portrait of Cromwell (circa 1532-'34). In it, he's squeezed into a corner, behind a table covered with a cloth, a book and writing implements. He does not look at the viewer, but to the side, and his is a face to inspire reticence. In the book, he's told he looks like a "murderer."
For much of history, Cromwell has been portrayed if not exactly as a killer, as a man with a murderously dark heart. While there is undoubtedly duskiness on a heart that can plot to revenge himself upon enemies, sending them to the torturer, there is hopefulness as well; in this case, for a more equitable society through an English-language translation of the Bible (and the accompanying Martin Lutheran ideology that goes with it).
Toward the finale, the utterly complex Cromwell speaks words that Woods shows real empathy for: "I don't want this country to be like my father's house in Putney, shouting and fighting all the time."