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New stage and TV productions explore the life of Thomas Cromwell. He was a man who started at the bottom, then rose to the top. He was called King Henry VIII's pit bull, an aide who did his dirty work like helping him get divorced against the will of the church. Later, he was executed for treason, among other things. History has not been kind to him, but the man with the bad reputation became a heroic figure in Hilary Mantel's award-winning novels "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up The Bodies." And those books have been adapted for performance on stage and screen. A two-part play is currently previewing on Broadway and a six-part miniseries debuts Sunday on PBS's "Masterpiece Theater." NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: In history and popular culture, Thomas Cromwell has mostly been depicted as a bad guy - able and willing to do the king's bidding, whether right or wrong. Beyond that, a lot of people had no idea who he was - even Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "Wolf Hall."
BEN MILES: I had no impression of Thomas Cromwell. I, like many others when asked, do you know about Thomas Cromwell, said don't you mean Oliver Cromwell?
NEARY: The popularity of Mantel's novels breathed a new life into Cromwell's legacy. And now Mantel's version of the story will get even more exposure as her Thomas leaps off the page onto the TV screen and into the theater.
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NEARY: At the Winter Garden Theatre, actors arrive backstage for a dress rehearsal of "Wolf Hall." On this day, they're rehearsing Part Two, which opens with a hunting scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY REHEARSAL, "WOLF HALL")
MILES: (As Thomas Cromwell) I know where is an hind. But as for me, alas...
JEREMY HERRIN: Let's start again, please.
NEARY: The staging of both plays is fluid with characters moving swiftly and boldly across the stark set. Director Jeremy Herrin says he felt the intrigues of Henry VIII and his court called for that kind of energy.
HERRIN: They're big public stories, and they demand big public plays that talk about politics, that talk about morality on the large scale. And in order to do that, there needs to be a transaction that involves momentum and engagement and vulnerability and bravery and physicality going from the stage to the audience and back.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NEARY: Though the role is demanding, Ben Miles says playing Cromwell is a joy because there are so many sides to the character.
MILES: He has moments of heartlessness. He has moments of great generosity. He's capable of great brutality. He's experienced great brutality in his life.
NEARY: It was Thomas Cromwell who helped pave the way for Henry's divorce and then marriage to Anne Boleyn. Later, it was Cromwell who made the case which led to her beheading. Ben Miles says Cromwell's relationship with the king was complicated.
MILES: He is in some sense Henry's pit bull. He's also in some sense Henry's confessor. I think the key to their relationship is Cromwell is the man who allows Henry to feel that his decisions are the right decisions.
NEARY: Henry often used Cromwell to do his dirty work, even sending him to see his estranged wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to secure the loyalty of their daughter, Mary.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY REHEARSAL, "WOLF HALL")
MILES: (As Thomas Cromwell) If Mary will recognize Henry as head of the Church, he will be good to her. If she will recognize Anne as queen...
LUCY BRIERS: (As Catherine of Aragon) She will fight my cause if it costs her life.
MILES: (As Thomas Cromwell) You are unnatural. What parent would risk her child's death?
BRIERS: (As Catherine of Aragon) What mother...
NEARY: Sitting in the back of the theater, watching as the drama plays out, is Hilary Mantel. She has been closely involved with every aspect of this production - attending rehearsals and performances, working with the playwright, director and the cast, especially Ben Miles.
HILARY MANTEL: Indeed, he has helped me a great deal to construct the Thomas Cromwell of the third novel, which is now in progress.
NEARY: Though Cromwell can be a physically threatening man, Mantel says much of his power resides in his stillness.
MANTEL: A lot of time, Cromwell is an observer - he's on the fringe of the road - but yet there is force emanating from him. And I think that's something that's very important before a live audience, that kind of charisma.
NEARY: Mantel has also offered advice to the TV production, which stars Mark Rylance as Cromwell. The productions are very different, says Mantel. Television demands a quieter, slower-paced version of the story.
MANTEL: Mark Rylance is allowed the luxury of time. And, as I say, the close focus allows us to dwell on those enigmatic features and those green eyes and try to work out what's happening behind them.
NEARY: In the TV production, Mark Rylance plays Cromwell as a man of infinite patience, capable of waiting out and wearing down his rivals - none more so than Thomas More, who Catholics regard as a saint because of his defense of the Roman Church. In Mantel's stories, he is more of a fanatic, while Cromwell is a sincere reformer. When More ends up imprisoned in the Tower of London, Cromwell tries to get him to sign onto the document that would make Henry head of the Church of England.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOLF HALL")
MARK RYLANCE: (As Thomas Cromwell) Just sign the paper, the king will be happy. I'll send my barge to row you back to Chelsea, back to your garden, your children, back to Dame Alice, who will be waiting to prepare you up to your own bed. Won't you want that?
NEARY: Cromwell, says Rylance, is a moral man, but he is also an ambitious man. And above all, he is a survivor who knows how to manipulate power to his advantage.
RYLANCE: He has the mind of a chess player. And chess is a very violent game, but you rarely see the chess players shouting at each other or hitting each other, but they are certainly going to destroy you before they're going to let you destroy them.
NEARY: Cromwell's reputation as a tough guy, says TV director Peter Kosminsky, doesn't explain how he caught the attention of a king. Mark Rylance's performance, Kosminsky says, is grounded in their mutual belief that there must've been something utterly fascinating about Cromwell.
PETER KOSMINSKY: For Cromwell to have risen to become the second most powerful man in England after the king from a complete obscurity, he must've been an extraordinarily impressive and charismatic individual. I just don't think straightforward intimidatory thuggery would have done it.
NEARY: Hilary Mantel has created a complicated character, says Kosminsky. Her Cromwell is a likable man. He has a wry sense of humor, a tireless dedication to his work and a fierce loyalty to those he serves. Yet he is willing to manipulate the law and see innocent people die if that is what the king demands.
KOSMINSKY: You see this almost, as I say, Faustian pact that Cromwell has made with the devil king. And so on one hand, he is this immensely powerful figure, and yet on the other hand his position is utterly precarious. If he doesn't give Henry precisely what he wants when he wants it, he will fall - as, you know of course history reveals, he ultimately did.
NEARY: And all that will unfold in the third book, coming just as soon as Hilary Mantel finishes it. Lynn Neary, NPR News.
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