"Stuff that touches the skin deteriorates the fastest."
Susan Checklick is calling from backstage at the Winter Garden Theatre. That evening's performance of Wolf Hall is under way, and she is staring at 12 laundry baskets full of fabric scraps. Before the week is over, possibly before the performance is over, her role as the show's wardrobe supervisor may require her to dip into those baskets and fix some Tudor tears.
"Clothes that were built for the show [when it premiered in England] two years ago are now, well, two years old," she says. "So sometimes there are some large capital improvements that have to be made. And sweat and body oil are by far the most responsible for this."
As Wolf Hall, the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels about the machinations in Henry VIII's court, nears the July 5 conclusion of its Broadway run, the costume designer Christopher Oram, who just won a Tony Award for his work on this production, is already back in England. It falls on Checklick and the rest of the wardrobe team to keep the designer's vision of the king (and his various wives, vassals, and foes) on track.
Oram stresses that these outfits are meant to withstand the rigors of an eight-performance week. "At the end of the day, they are costumes," he says. "They need to behave in a way that works from the perspective of putting on this play. Back then, you would have worn the same shirt for years, not had it washed every night."
The result is some 300 different costume pieces, which works out to 17 backstage racks of clothes. Henry alone has eight full outfits, each with four layers, and Anne Boleyn's wardrobe is just as extensive. (Pulling up the rear is the play's protagonist, the Machiavellian minister Thomas Cromwell. "He would have had more, but he never leaves the stage," Oram says.)
The massive amount of clothing is more than an excuse to show off doublets and gowns. It's crucial to the play's aesthetic. "It's a huge canvas, and it keeps changing," Oram says. "And the set doesn't change, so it's all storytelling through costumes."
Oram initially feared that this balance of authenticity, practicality, and narrative demands would be disrupted by the presence of the famously exacting Mantel, who spent five years researching the first, Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall novel. (The second book, Bring Up the Bodies, also won the award.)
"It was intimidating at first," he says of Mantel's involvement. "You know, 'You've won all these massive prizes. Who am I to speak out or speak against that?' But she loved being part of the physicalization of it, and she asked just as many questions as she answered from us. I think she wants to do Play No. 3 more than she wants to do Book No. 3."
Eric Grode is director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program in Syracuse.
Photos by Johan Persson. Top photo: Lydia Leonard (as Anne Boleyn) and company.