Over the past two weekends I’ve had the good fortune to see the RSC’s adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Good fortune because tickets have been as rare as hen’s teeth and on the day that booking opened it was more difficult to get a seat for either of these productions than it was for David Tennant’s Richard II: something, I suspect, that took the Company by surprise given that they had been scheduled for The Swan, the smaller of their two theatres.
In general, I don’t approve of transferring a novel onto the stage. There are several reasons for this. Primarily, I object because there are a great many excellent playwrights out there who are desperately trying to get their own original work staged and every money-making adaptation that comes along takes yet another theatre out of commission as far as their new scripts are concerned. Theatres, especially national, subsidised theatres, should be trying to encourage new writers, not make things more difficult for them.
But, I also object because, quite simply, a book is a book and a play is a play and they are two very different literary forms. I would be preaching to the converted, I’m sure, if I were to say that ninety-nine times out of a hundred the book is better. This is a commonplace observation where transferring a novel onto the screen is concerned. However, for me there are even more problems inherent in trying to transfer a book from the page to the stage.
In moving to either medium you are inevitably going to have go through a process of thinning out the work’s texture but the filleting process is more extreme on stage where you don’t have the screen’s options of expressing setting and tone through sweeping shots of background locations or of allowing the audience an intimate insight into a character’s emotions or reaction to an event via the camera close-up. And this is before we come to the plot. My first encounter with Pride and Prejudice was on stage and I was horrified when I later came to read the novel to discover that no one had told Jane Austen that there were only three Bennett daughters. Where had these interlopers, Mary and Kitty, come from? But of course, on the page it costs you no more to have five daughters than it does to have three. In the theatre, financial considerations are rather different.
So, how do these productions match up to the novels? Well, they have one very great plus point and that is the casting of Ben Miles as Cromwell. He has captured the tone of narrative voice that is such an integral part of Mantel’s novels to perfection as well as adroitly adopting time after time the position of an observer, watching and mentally noting what is happening and storing up that information for future reference. His diligence helps to signal to the audience that they too should be marking out a particular action or turn of phrase, ready to spot the moment later when the consequences of that act or word come home to roost. And that is needed because inevitably much of the texture of the books has had to be filleted out to fit what becomes a mere five and a half hours of stage time and the audience has to be on their toes to keep up with what is going on. The friend with whom I saw the plays was adamant that if you didn’t know the books then you would have a hard time following what was happening, although I suspect that is something we’ll never be able to put to the test because listening in on conversations pretty much everyone there was well acquainted with the novels. Nevertheless, however well you know the text, you can’t afford to let your attention slip for a moment.
One element that I did think worked better on the stage than on the page was the conflict between Cromwell and Thomas More. I have to admit that when I read Wolf Hall for the first time I didn’t realise that it was building up to the death of More as its climax. In the theatre this is much more obvious because you can see the animosity between the two characters growing before your eyes. But, and you knew it was coming, didn’t you, that death takes place off stage and so climax becomes anticlimax and I was left asking brilliant though the novel is, could a stage version ever really be theatre. For me theatre needs an onstage moment when everything is brought to a point of high tension and here that doesn’t happen. It simply fritters to a close.
Well, maybe that’s not so bad at the end of Wolf Hall, after all we do know that we have Bring Up The Bodies to come and surely that has to have that moment of climax, that moment at which you simply cannot look. We are, as it were, there at the very instant when Anne Boleyn loses her head. Well, yes, or rather, no, or possibly, maybe. I won’t say any more incase anyone is going to see it, but don’t hold your breath.
So, an adaptation that has real integrity as far as the content, characterisation and tone are concerned, but for me also an adaptation that highlights the difference between narrative for the page and narrative for the stage. However, lest you should think that I had two really miserable afternoons at the theatre, I should say that that wasn’t the case, partly because of some excellent supporting acting. Nathaniel Parker can turn Henry’s mood on a half line. There were times when the sudden explosion of danger in the air simply took your breath away. And Paul Jesson gives Cardinal Wolsey a quality of almost benign otherworldliness that makes it clear why Cromwell is so devoted to him. The fact that his character wanders on and off stage during Bring Up The Bodies also helps to keep Cromwell’s motivation at the forefront of the audience’s mind.
The productions have almost run their course now and as far as I know there are as yet no plans to bring them into London. I believe the problem is one of theatre availability. However, if they do move into the capital then don’t let my caveats put you off going. These plays may not be true theatre but they are still definitely worth seeing.