HILARY Mantel’s award winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have been adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton, and are currently part of the Swan Theatre season at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
And while fans await the publication of The Mirror and the Light, the third part of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and rumours are flying of a London transfer for these first two plays, it’s returns only at the Swan, where the author tirelessly signed programmes for last week’s audience on the day her next book, of Thatcher short stories, was announced.
The plays, like the books, are tours de force, inhabiting the whirling, intrigue-ridden court of the charismatic Henry VIII, as the wily “Putney Boy” Cromwell observes, plans and pounces on his adversaries.
Lordlings with bombast instead of brains fail to notice that the king not only has power but a touching humility and fierce loyalties that are often at odds with his changeable temperament. For these first two plays at least, Cromwell manages to second-guess the monarch’s moods and becomes his right-hand man and trusted adviser – in the process making dangerous enemies who regard him as a social upstart as well as a ruthless manipulator.
All this is in the books, which are beloved by so many but disliked by some who struggle with Mantel’s style or argue with her interpretation of history. The Mantel fans rushed to book seats for the theatrical adaptations, staged in the smaller of the RSC’s Stratford venues until the end of March.
And many have been surprised at the humour that Mike Poulton has drawn from the dense books, written in a controversial present tense.
For those of us in the West Country, references to the wealth of the Abbot of Glastonbury and the Abbess of Shaftesbury, and their combined fortunes if they were drawn into the same bed, and to the vast treasures of Maiden Bradley’s religious centre, bring a familiarity to the story. At his death in 1540, Cromwell was (among many other titles) Recorder and Commissioner for the Pease at Bristol, prebendary of Salisbury and Dean of Wells.
And central to both plays is Anne Boleyn, here played by Lydia Leonard, a Bristol Old Vic Theatre School graduate who delighted the local audience as Rosaline in the summer touring Loves Labours Lost a decade ago, and as Mrs Merrythought in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Fulfilling her student promise, she blazes and teases her way through the plays, but as the cards she holds are frittered away, her one time ally “Cremuel” arranges her execution as the king fears for his mortal soul in the wake of sin and the lack of a promised male heir.
Ben Miles, on stage for almost the entire six and a half hours of the two plays, is ceaselessly watchful, juggling to protect his family and friends and satisfy the capricious king.
And Nathanial Parker is just how you want the younger Henry VIII to be – a Renaissance man irresistibly fascinated by all facets of his country and his people, led by a huge appetite for knowledge, arts, women and food and a real concern for his future place in heaven, at the same time unable to tame his exercise of power – until it was too late.
Fingers crossed that these plays find their way into a London theatre and onto the satellite broadcasts, to give a larger audience the chance to experience these marvellous productions, rich in Tudor panoply and deep in human insight.
In the mean time the BBC is organising its own adaptations, with Mark Rylance as Cromwell, and Hilary Mantel promises to complete the third book later this year.
Photographer : Keith Pattison
Copyright : RSC