Hilary Mantel and the Respectable Face of Soap Opera

PT-AM705_BK_Cov_DV_20091009120647I 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.

 

Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies ~ The Play

PT-AM705_BK_Cov_DV_20091009120647Over 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.