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A King’s Counselor, Whittled to Size
STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England — When Hilary Mantel was writing “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” her best-selling novels about the court of Henry VIII, she was so scrupulous about accuracy that she created a card catalog of dates and events to ensure that her characters were never out of joint with the past. But when the Royal Shakespeare Company began cutting her 500-page books into two-and-a-half-hour plays, Ms. Mantel had to act as “the history police,” as she put it.
She could live with sacrificing moments where her main character, Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s powerful adviser, fought with Thomas More and other ministers over the king’s plans to marry Anne Boleyn. But a moment of truth came when someone suggested streamlining the royal marriage by having Henry turn against Anne when their first baby wasn’t a male heir. “You would like history to be more convenient, but once you say ‘We’ll just fudge that,’ it’s a slippery slope to ending up with no credibility,” said Ms. Mantel, who made her own history by winning the Man Booker Prize for a novel (in 2009 for “Wolf Hall”) as well as for its sequel (in 2012 for “Bring Up the Bodies”).
“I had to draw the line, though I sympathized,” she said. “These books have been beasts to adapt for the stage.”
The two plays, now in preview performances here, have clearly profited from the books’ popularity: Most seats sold quickly after going on sale last spring. Famous actors usually drive that kind of box office success, but in this case, the star, far offstage, is Ms. Mantel, who was widely acclaimed by reviewers in Britain and the United States for her vividly drawn characters, suspenseful plotting and lyrical prose. While no official plans have been announced, the producers are eyeing a transfer of the plays to London this year, then perhaps to New York.
Whether the plays measure up to the quality and historical fidelity of the books, however, will start becoming clear this month as theater and literary critics weigh in after the official opening on Wednesday at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theater here.
The artists and producers working on the plays readily agreed with Ms. Mantel’s description of the adaptation challenge; more than one person noted that the “Wolf Hall” novel takes 24 hours to read aloud and has 100 notable characters, while the play version runs about one-tenth the time and features 21 actors (some playing multiple roles). But the creative team members have been determined to retain as much of Ms. Mantel’s prose as possible, as well as to prove to the world — including the BBC, which will film a mini-series of the novels this year — that theater can bring the books to memorable life.
“You want people to leave the theater at half past 10 feeling they experienced the story in a new way, a more imaginative way than just watching the books on the telly,” said Mike Poulton, a veteran British translator and adapter who wrote the plays.
Each book presented puzzles to solve. “Wolf Hall” takes place over the first 35 years of the 16th century, following the rise of Cromwell from common birth to Henry’s right-hand man amid Continent-shaking events like the Protestant Reformation, the end of the king’s dynastic marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and Henry’s courtship of Anne. By contrast, “Bring Up the Bodies” is tightly focused over nine months of tumult, ending with Anne’s beheading.
“ ‘Wolf Hall’ is just incredibly dense — and it doesn’t really have a proper ending — while ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ is building up to one of history’s most famous executions, which is therefore not a surprising climax,” Mr. Poulton said. “So we had to find ways to build to a place of turmoil and questions in the first play, then start the second play with a bang and race to that horrific ending.”
Mr. Poulton reread “Wolf Hall” six times and imagined at least 20 ways to render it. He fought with himself repeatedly over passages that ended up being cut — time in Cromwell’s household, various threats to Anne Boleyn, discussions of religion between Cromwell and his early patron the powerful Cardinal Wolsey — passages that are provocative on the page but would risk boring theatergoers. Mr. Poulton also considered soliloquies for Cromwell, but opted to keep the character immersed in the action.
“The first draft, I was aiming for 25,000 words for ‘Wolf Hall,’ and it was 60,000 words,” Mr. Poulton said. “It’s been a process of refinement, refinement, refinement.”
Probably the most controversial idea was cutting the key character of Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor and the pope’s defender in England, as a way to focus the storytelling and save time.
More is crucial in “Wolf Hall” as the main antagonist to Cromwell, with several juicy scenes of the men sparring about More’s torture of anti-Catholic heretics and about Henry’s break with Rome over his desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. While Mr. Poulton wrote drafts with and without More, the character survived in the end, in large part because Ms. Mantel’s perspective on him was so much more provocative than the well-known martyr from Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons,” which was turned into a 1966 film that won the Academy Award for best picture.
“Hilary transforms More into a more obvious politician with a vicious agenda,” said Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “The books tell you stories that you didn’t know, or that you thought you knew, and we didn’t want to lose that.”
The adaptation project first began with a commercial theater producer, Matthew Byam Shaw, who recruited Mr. Poulton after the two worked together on a critically acclaimed West End adaptation of “Don Carlos,” Schiller’s historical drama, which Mr. Poulton streamlined from seven hours to three. “It played like a John le Carré novel,” Mr. Byam Shaw recalled of the 2005 “Don Carlos.” “Mike’s just good at writing taut, riveting history. And with Hilary’s books we needed a fine but delicate butcher.”
Mr. Byam Shaw had bought the stage rights to the books — he declined to provide the sum other than describing it as “not unusual” — but quickly decided that the Royal Shakespeare Company, with its expertise for historical drama (as well as its government-supported budget and sizable costume and set shops), would be an ideal partner.
“I knew there would be a broad audience base for the plays, because, as a publisher’s son, I keep a beady eye on book sales,” said Mr. Byam Shaw, whose father, Nicholas, was a longtime executive at MacMillan. “Still, the R.S.C. knows better than anyone how to create this sort of work.”
But initially, there were qualms on the part of Mr. Doran, particularly after he learned that the BBC was pursuing a mini-series starring the Tony Award winner Mark Rylance as Cromwell. (That television adaptation, which was initially to be seen in late 2013, is now aiming for 2015.)
“I didn’t want the R.S.C. to develop a reputation for chasing stage adaptations of best sellers, especially when television and moviemakers are already doing them,” said Mr. Doran. (Even so, the theater has a mighty track record with adaptations, with “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” and “Les Misérables.”)
“But the books fit our mission,” he added. “Shakespeare wrote his history plays as a prophecy and a warning. Hilary is really writing about modern politics, about leaders surviving, and the way power works — including torture as a weapon that some in society accept.” (Ms. Mantel is currently writing “The Mirror and the Light,” the final book in what will be a trilogy about Cromwell, but there are no plans to adapt it for the stage at this point.)
Mr. Doran chose to put the plays into the Swan, which has 450 seats, instead of the larger, 1,040-seat Royal Shakespeare Theater. His concern wasn’t ticket sales, he said, but atmosphere.
“The way Hilary sets her scenes, they are usually in a hall corridor or side room or little back street and bedchamber,” he said. “Like the reader, the audience should feel like it’s eavesdropping on the characters.”
To play Cromwell, the plays’ director, Jeremy Herrin, said he wanted a well-trained stage actor with the chops to handles the role’s demands — not least of which is stamina, since the character is onstage almost constantly. He also wanted an actor who was physically attractive — while often ugly in portraits, Cromwell draws the interest of more than one woman — as well as imposing.
While the film star James McAvoy played Cromwell in an early reading, Mr. Herrin went with the theater and television actor Ben Miles, who played an appealingly enigmatic character in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of “The Norman Conquests” and a sexier one opposite Kristin Scott Thomas in the critically acclaimed British production of “Betrayal.”
“Ben can turn from charismatic into menace at the flip of a hat, and that’s Hilary’s Cromwell,” Mr. Herrin said. “You need to be appalled but amused by him at the same time.”
Ms. Mantel wrote a two-page summary of Cromwell’s life to help Mr. Miles, then ended up writing summaries for all of the actors — even for characters who just had a few lines of dialogue. She ended up becoming far more involved in the adaptation process than she expected to be, and happily so, because Mr. Poulton drew her into the process over long email conversations about her historical research, writing choices and the cuts and changes that he was wrestling with. At times, he even came down to her home, in Devon in southwest England, to work together while staying at an apartment she owned nearby.
“I’m a frustrated playwright myself,” Ms. Mantel said. “I would have loved to have written plays.” She has written about a dozen books but has never had any adapted for theater before now.
“But if I had been writing these plays, you’d have a series of talking heads as characters,” she said. “Mike knows theater. If he wants the River Thames onstage, he can imagine it in his mind’s eye.”
During their time in Devon, Mr. Poulton said, Ms. Mantel constantly surprised him.
“Hilary is more radical than I am,” Mr. Poulton said. “She kept saying, ‘Why don’t we cut this, why don’t we change that?’ But 90 percent of the plays is her. Because a lot of people will come wanting to hear Cromwell and Anne sniping at each other the way Hilary wrote them sniping.”
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