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'Wolf Hall' and 'Bring Up the Bodies' review: Six hours of Tudors

Lydia Leonard and Company in "Wolf Hall Part

Lydia Leonard and Company in "Wolf Hall Part 1 and 2" at the Aldwych Theatre in London in 2014. Credit: Johan Persson

"The King called me this morning -- early."

"What did he want?"

"A son."

And with that, we're off.

Off to "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," the Royal Shakespeare Company's celebrated two-part, six-hour costume drama and historical entertainment about King Henry VIII's infamous habit of discarding wives who can't produce a male heir. Based on Hilary Mantel's two prizewinning books, this prestige event of the Broadway season offers straightforward storytelling, finely wrought performances and yards upon yards of magnificent 16th century costumes.

An admirable acting Olympiad is led by Ben Miles' smooth and shrewd portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son who rose to consigliere of the Tudor court. For all the marathon's heft, however, this is not a perception-altering import comparable to the Globe Theatre's pair of all-male Shakespeare plays, starring Mark Rylance, in 2013, nor the RSC's own eight-hour "Nicholas Nickleby" from the '80s.

The plays, directed handsomely but unsurprisingly by Jeremy Herrin, begin with the actors formally arranging themselves and sweeping through a Renaissance dance on a bare stage with granite panels. (The simple sets and meticulously elaborate costumes are by Christopher Oram.)

From there, we head to that opening exchange between Cromwell and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, played with puckish sybaritic wiliness by Paul Jesson. The King -- a hearty, grandiose, insecure man portrayed by Nathaniel Parker -- needs a son to carry on his rule. Since Katherine (Lucy Briers), his wife of 20 years, has failed, Henry has his eye on Anne Boleyn -- embodied with the saunter and swagger of an Eva Peron by Lydia Leonard. When that goes bad, Henry moves on to the birdlike Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead). Her family estate is named Wolf Hall.

Despite the feral titles, the plays offer more steady elegance than wild passion. Miles, seldom off the stage, shows us a Cromwell who is ruthless, but not bloodthirsty. Mocked for his working-class background, he admirably grows slicker and more powerful without stooping to villainous cliche.

You know the story, if not in this detail. England breaks with the pope when Henry can't get an annulment, countries make business deals over liaisons, trusted courtiers are betrayed, heads roll, caskets pass as snowflakes glisten and the dead haunt those left and still-conniving.

In this version, adapted by Mike Poulton, there are also a jarring number of running jokes -- about Anne's flat chest, about England's rainy weather, about those awful French.

PBS is currently showing a different, six-part adaptation of "Wolf Hall." Television excels at straightforward narrative. It is hard not to wish for something deeper from all those hours onstage.

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