I spent a large part of last weekend in the company of Hilary Mantel as the RSC staged two events considering the phenomenon of the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell in the public perception as a result of her novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and their subsequent stage adaptations.
On Saturday morning Mantel and the playwright, Mike Poulton, spoke about the challenges inherent in taking two such wordy novels and transferring them to the not quite two hour traffic of our stage, but nevertheless into a tight five hour schedule. Unusually, as these events are normally chaired by someone from the RSC Events Department, this was headed up by the Associate Director, Greg Doran, whose first prompt was to ask just why we had all become so fascinated by the Tudors in recent years. Mantel was quite definite about this. The Tudors, she said, are the respectable face of soap opera and just as we are fascinated by the doings of current royalty and those to whom we afford celebrity status so to we have a fascination with those in similar positions in the past. We are penny plain, they are twopenny coloured.
I think what interested me most about the discussion that then ensued was the extent to which Mantel had been involved in the staging of her books. It certainly wasn’t simply a case of handing over her work and letting Poulton do his. She appeared to have been there at every juncture, helping the cast understand the individuals they had been asked to play, working out which scenes were to be included, which to be omitted and how the decisions thus made could be moulded into an acceptable whole.
I can imagine that in many instances having such a hands-on author must be a playwright’s worst nightmare, but this partnership seems to have worked very well. Perhaps this was in part because Mantel doesn’t seem to be the least bit precious about her books. “They are not holy writ,” she said. “In every instance there were several ways in which the scenes I created could have gone onto the page. Putting them on the stage is simply exploring another set of possibilities.”
And, those possibilities were many and varied. Mike Poulton spoke about having to find the play in the novel and pointed out that there were many scripts, each with a slightly different focus, that could have come out of the books and his job was to find one that worked on the stage but was also true to the original. And to history – apparently, version five left out the Reformation! Even now, when the productions have just two more days to run in Stratford, the work of adapting goes on. A theatre having unexpectedly become available, the company is moving down to London. (Get your tickets now! The box office took over a million pounds on the first day it opened.) However, the Swan is a thrust stage, whereas the audience at the Aldwych will be separated from the action by a proscenium arch. This means that much of the play has had to be re-staged and parts of the script tinkered with. No play ever stays the same throughout its run, but in this instance it seems to be even more of a growing entity than usual.
Inevitably, the question of the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, came up. When she was asked about this again in the Sunday morning session, where she led a discussion on the real Thomas Cromwell, Mantel was clear that we couldn’t expect it anytime in the very near future. 2015 was definitely ruled out. But, that too is intended for the stage as well as the page. In fact, given that she and Poulton were apparently working on the script for Bring Up The Bodies before the book was even published, it is likely that he will see it before anyone else.
The Sunday session, Cromwell’s Court was much more academic in nature and I’m not going to attempt to document all the discussions that took place. Mantel gave the keynote speech and addressed the reasons why the reading public knew so little about Cromwell. He’s not there in romantic fiction because in general such novels are not interested in politics and it was politics that interested Cromwell above everything else. In terms of documentation he exists only in relation to the policies that he pushed through. His private life is almost completely absent from the official record and it is the private lives of individuals that have tended to attract writers. He has, in recent years, found his way into crime fiction, where politics can often be at the root of any motivation. But even there he hasn’t been central. “History deals the cards but the trivial makes the cut.” For Mantel, however, it is the politics that is of real interest. It is why she brought this man out of his relative fictional obscurity and subjected him to the light of public scrutiny, examining his policies and the manner in which he negotiated his way through the treacherous rapids of the Tudor Court.
I learnt a tremendous amount over the weekend about both Cromwell and Mantel’s relationship to him. I was left wondering, however, about the nature of the third novel, The Mirror and the Light. I’d assumed that it would take us through the years between the death of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own execution in 1540 but something Mantel said made me question whether it will be as simple as that or whether we might find ourselves covering old ground but seeing it from a different point of view. In one sense I rather hope that is the case. I don’t think I have the stomach to watch a man I have come to admire being brought down by those who despised him simply because of his lowly beginnings. One of the things that most angered me, although it didn’t surprise me, was the statement made by one of the other speakers on Sunday that Cromwell’s rise would have been seen by many as against God’s natural order and his death therefore as a just act restoring that order. Mantel, thank goodness, has turned any such ideas completely on their head and brought into public prominence a politician I certainly wouldn’t mind having in government today.