A Star is Born at 55
by Aidan O'Shea © 2015
Karl Marx wrote that religion is the opium of the people. One could argue that Television is the opium of the people today. It is by turns soothing and stimulating, boring and addictive, just like opium. We often sit for hours in the vague hope that the next programme will entertain or enlighten us. Here and there among television's bewildering variety of rolling news, addictive soap dramas, chat shows featuring minor celebrities and confessional stories, embarrassing reality shows about weight control, contrived endurance tests and broken dreams, a gem of artistic merit emerges.
Such a gem is the TV series Wolf Hall, the story of Thomas Cromwell adapted from the book by Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall (2009) is a historical novel set in the period from 1500 to 1535, documenting the rapid rise to power of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII through to the death of Sir Thomas More.
Born to a working-class family of no position or name, Cromwell rose to become the right-hand man of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, adviser to the King. He survived Wolsey's fall from grace to eventually take his place as the most powerful of Henry's ministers. In that role, he oversaw Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, the English church's break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries.
Historical and literary accounts have not been kind to Cromwell; in Robert Bolt's play and film A Man for All Seasons Cromwell is shown as the calculating, unprincipled opposite of Thomas More's honour and rectitude. Paul Schofield's playing of Thomas More was a masterclass of film acting. Mantel's novel offers an alternative to that characterisation, a more intimate portrait of Cromwell as a pragmatic and talented man attempting to serve king and country amid the political machinations of Henry's court and the religious upheavals of the Protestant reformation.
BBC Two spent £7 million on the recent lavish television adaptation of Wolf Hall, comprising six one-hour episodes. The series features three memorable performances, by Damian Lewis as King Henry VIII, Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell. It is no easy task to convey the political and sexual intrigue, religious ferment and struggle for power of this era. Rylance manages this in a most subtle and moving way, by underplaying the character, by being in fact our eyes and ears at the royal court. His performance is all the more effective because he is relatively unknown as an actor. In a BBC interview for Desert Island Discs, he seemed surprised at his belated fame, giving credit to everyone but himself for the success of the BBC production.
Mark Rylance was born in 1960 in Ashford, Kent, the son of Anne and David Waters, both teachers of English. His parents moved to Connecticut in 1962 and Wisconsin in 1969, where his father taught English at the University School of Milwaukee. Rylance later attended this school, where he began acting. His first notable role was in a 1976 production of Hamlet (with his father playing the First Gravedigger), and he later played Romeo in the school's production of Romeo and Juliet.
In 1995, Rylance became the first Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, a post he held until 2005. The Globe, on the south bank of the Thames, was built in 1997 on the site and in the style of the original Elizabethan circular theatre of Shakespeare's time. Rylance directed and acted in every season, in works by Shakespeare and others, notably in all-male productions of Twelfth Night where he starred as Olivia, and Richard II where he took the title role.
Rylance is social activist and a patron of Peace Direct, an international charity supporting reconciliation. He is also patron of The Outside Edge Theatre Company. It works from the perspective of creating theatre and drama with people affected by substance abuse. It provides theatre interventions in drug and alcohol treatment and general community facilities throughout Britain, as well as producing professional public theatre productions that take place in theatres, studio theatres, and art centres. Rylance believes it to be "proper initiatory old style theatre".
Hilary Mantel explains that Wolf Hall is historical fiction, not history. It is her characterisation of the people and events. Some critics do not agree with her rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell. Simon Schama, presenter of A History of Britain criticises the narrative in Wolf Hall. "It grates a bit to accept that millions now think of Thomas Cromwell as a much-maligned, misunderstood pragmatist from the school of hard knocks who got precious little thanks for doing Henry VIII's dirty work. When I was doing research for A History of Britain, the documents shouted to high heaven that Thomas Cromwell was, in fact, a detestably self-serving, bullying monster who perfected state terror in England, cooked the evidence, and extracted confessions by torture." Cromwell too fell from royal favour and was beheaded at Tower Hill having been condemned without trial.