By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Tudor court of England's King Henry VIII, with all its intrigue, greed and betrayal, comes alive on Broadway in "Wolf Hall Parts One & Two," the theatrical adaptation of author Hilary Mantel's award-winning historical novels.
The two-part production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, which runs for a total of more than five hours, opened at the Winter Garden Theater in New York Thursday after sold-out engagements in Stratford-upon-Avon and London's West End.
Based on Mantel's books, "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies," which also spawned a six-part BBC mini series showing on PBS television, the performances chronicle the politics and power struggles of Henry VIII.
The king breaks with the Catholic Church during his reign in the 1500s so he can leave his wife, Katherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn, in the hopes of producing a male heir.
"You can look at it as a contemporary political thriller. The events may be very particular and specific to their times but everyone will recognize the universal element in the story," Mantel said in an interview.
"They will know the sexual politics. They will know the struggle for power," she said.
The intrigue unfolds through Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), who rises from lowly beginnings as a blacksmith's son to become a lawyer and chief advisor of Henry VIII (Nathaniel Parker).
Cromwell assists the lusty, superstitious Henry in his marriage to the ambitious Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), and after he tires of her when she fails to produce a son, helps remove her to pave the way for wife No. 3, Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead).
"Ben Miles expertly summons the man in full: his tenderness, humor and heartless ambition all in one," said the New York Daily News. "Miles reigns in this court."
USA Today also praised Miles, describing his Cromwell as nuanced and "suitably thoughtful," Leonard's Anne as "haughty, saucy" and Parker's Henry as "charismatic."
But the paper said the performances could not compensate for plays that impressed but did not transport audiences.
"It's amazing that a story jam-packed with lust, betrayal, greed and violence can be so ... dull," said the New York Post newspaper.
But New York Times' Ben Brantley, who has seen both English productions, was transfixed with "Wolf Hall" on Broadway.
"I found myself just as much in its thrall, and even more admiring of its accomplishment," he said.
(Additional reporting by Alicia Powell; Editing by Bernadette Baum)