‘Wolf Hall’ takes to the stage, TV series in works
Stage adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s novel about intrigue in the court of Henry VIII and its sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies,” are at London’s Aldwych Theatre, and a TV adaptation of both books is due next year on the BBC and PBS.
LONDON — Like its sharp-toothed namesake, “Wolf Hall” is a fearsome beast.
Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning best-seller about deadly intrigue at the court of King Henry VIII will soon be a BBC series with Tony Award-winner Mark Rylance and “Homeland” star Damian Lewis. “Wolf Hall” and sequel “Bring Up the Bodies” have already been adapted into plays that plunge audiences into a world of murky Tudor machinations.
As the plays move to London’s West End after a rave-gathering run at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, Mantel said the characters’ complex motives and shades of gray were key to the stories’ adaptability.
“They are highly ambivalent and ambiguous characters — and of course there’s a lot of mileage in that,” Mantel said. The double bill at the Aldwych Theatre runs through Sept. 6.
The story’s center — the wolf of “Wolf Hall” — is Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who rose to become the feared and canny counselor to Henry VIII.
On the page — and the stage, where he’s played by Ben Miles — he’s hungry, gimlet-eyed and ruthless, but also wry, clever and modern, a flawed hero who has captivated millions of readers.
It was Cromwell — who had been a soldier, a banker and a lawyer — who kept Henry’s coffers full and negotiated the monarch’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. It was the most sensational divorce in British history, leading the king to break with Rome and declare himself head of the new Church of England.
Mantel gives this oft-told story the pace and twists of a political thriller. Fans of political drama might see “House of Cards” as “Wolf Hall” in modern clothes.
It’s no surprise the books have spawned a mini-industry of stage and screen adaptations — they are a literary sensation. Both “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” won the prestigious Booker Prize, and together they’ve sold several million copies around the world. When the plays opened in Stratford earlier this year, Mantel was (very politely) mobbed by fans in the theater lobby.
And to think Mantel was told, early in her career, that no one was interested in historical fiction.
The plays are the work of Mike Poulton, who has adapted classics by authors including Charles Dickens and Anton Chekhov. Mantel was closely involved in the adaptation, and while that could be a recipe for tension, Poulton said it turned out to be “a joyous collaboration.”
“Hilary has done all the work — years and years of research,” he said. “She hands me on a plate countless plot lines and says ‘Choose which one.’ ... And also these wonderful characters that were just saying ‘Please, please take me off this page and let me walk about on the stage.’”
He said the only problem was knowing when to stop.
“We’re never absolutely happy,” Poulton said. “We are still writing. Hilary wrote a line this morning.”
Mantel is less directly involved in the TV series, a six-part adaptation of both books that is written by Peter Straughan. He’s an old hand at intrigue, having adapted John Le Carre’s spy classic “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” for the screen. Rylance, who plays Cromwell, has said the adaptation is “ingenious and faithful.”
The series is currently filming, with a cast that includes Lewis as the king, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Jonathan Pryce as Cromwell’s mentor Cardinal Wolsey. It’s due to air next year on the BBC in Britain and PBS in the United States.
Mantel has said there won’t be a feature film — the story could never fit into a two-hour running time.
Away from the 16th century, Mantel has a book of short stories, intriguingly titled “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” coming out in the fall.
And then she has to bring Cromwell’s story to a close. Mantel is currently writing the final volume of her Tudor trilogy, “The Mirror and the Light,” and she says the book is being subtly changed by working on the plays.
“It’s a unique project, because you’re adapting something that isn’t actually finished yet,” said Mantel, who admits to quizzing lead actor Miles for clues to Cromwell’s character: “ ‘How do you think this works? How does that feel?’ ”
She said actors “can tell you how it feels from the inside, which is what a novelist always wants to know.”
“And there’s nothing like watching a live show that’s different every night for reminding you that these were living, breathing human beings. They’re not paper constructs. They’re not the fabrications of historians — they’re flesh and blood.”