Newspaper article International New York Times

Tudor Palace Intrigue, in 3 Dimensions ; Hilary Mantel on Giving Her 'Wolf Hall' Novels Further Life on the Stage

Newspaper article International New York Times

Tudor Palace Intrigue, in 3 Dimensions ; Hilary Mantel on Giving Her 'Wolf Hall' Novels Further Life on the Stage

Article excerpt

Hilary Mantel on taking her "Wolf Hall" novels to the stage in London and New York.

Ten years ago, I started to build a theater inside my head. I wanted to tell -- or rather, to show -- a story about Henry VIII, the second Tudor king. It would be about his court, his country and three of his six wives: one sad, one serpentine, one sneaky. I would create -- or unleash, for they were real people -- a heaving mob of courtiers, who listened at doors, who opened each other's letters. I would turn out their pockets and count their cash. I would look into their houses and their hearts. My focus would be the king's fixer, the ferociously ambitious Thomas Cromwell.

I made my theater flat on paper, because I am a novelist by trade. As soon as "Wolf Hall" was published, there was an appetite to see it onstage. Flesh and blood actors would imitate the people who lived in my imagination. Would that, friends wondered, do violence to my inner world? In Stratford-on-Avon, in London, and now in New York, playgoers would ask the big question: How does it feel to see your characters come to life?

I answer with another question: When were they dead? Inside my head, they are whirls and blurs of energy in a show that never sleeps, where even in the small hours the blood runs down the walls. I construct the scenery and source the props, arrange the sound effects: church bells, the cry of hounds. I am my own lighting expert. When a candle comes in (tallow or beeswax, pricket holder or socket), mine is the hand that holds it. I carry it through the dark passages of my narrative, and shelter the flame as we cross the Narrow Sea: out of England and into France, from France to the battlefields and counting houses of Italy, to the wool markets of northern Europe, the waterfronts, the brewers' yards, the palaces.

There have been no days when my theater is dark. Even when I am half-asleep, Tudors charge in and out of my consciousness, banging the doors. I call them people, not characters. I make their costumes, but I call them clothes. I need to know the cost of the cloth, how to weave and dye it. Or at least, Cromwell needs to know.

On the page, I had created 159 characters. Someone counted. For the stage, we don't need look-alikes, I said. We don't need stars. Just a company of self-effacing shape-shifters who will play three and four parts, ripping themselves fiercely in and out of costumes and story lines, who will embody the vitality and passion of the Tudors inside my head. We need a director who is an expert in urgency, who will whip up magic and make the story fly. He was lurking in the wings for now, but Jeremy Herrin was the man.

First we needed a script. Mike Poulton, an experienced adapter, began work. We projected a single play that would open in London. But in "Wolf Hall," I had told only a fraction of Cromwell's story. Soon a second novel was ready: "Bring Up the Bodies." We could have two plays, if our London producers were brave. The Royal Shakespeare Company came on board, lent their expertise, their dedication and their smaller theater, the Swan, one of the most treasured spaces in the world.

Mike Poulton huffed and puffed at the edifice of the books, like the Big Bad Wolf blowing the house down. Out of the rubble arose a puff of smoke, billowing like a genie. It offered three wishes, and I made them. First, let us not make a hash of history. Second, let us not be solemn. And third, providence send us Cromwell: a lead who can stay onstage for six hours and carry every scene.

I blinked, and Mike had made a new story, a new shape. We will begin with dancing. This is Cromwell's low point. Now his fortunes begin to rise. This is where the intermission will be. This is how we will end. Here we will begin Play 2: no dancing, a stag hunt. This is the midpoint. At the end, backed by an assemblage of ghosts, Cromwell will raise a glass, and drink to his own health.

Ten drafts. Mike is used to working with dead writers. …

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