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The jewels in Queen Hilary's crown: Why Wolf Hall is the must-see theatre event of the year
Event brought together the cast and author to give a unique insight into the beddings, weddings and beheadings wowing the West End.
Several times a week, novelist Hilary Mantel slips into the stalls at London’s Aldwych Theatre to watch the characters from her two best-selling novels about Henry VIII’s court come alive on stage.
She worked closely with playwright Mike Poulton on the two-part adaptation. It took three years to turn two 600-page books into a gripping piece of theatre that brings the politics of Tudor England thrillingly alive for a modern audience.
Already a smash hit as a Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon (it ran to full houses for four months in 2013), the adaptation’s transfer to London last month broke box-office records, taking Ł6million before opening night – more than even the hugely successful play The Audience, starring Helen Mirren as the Queen. An extension of the current run beyond September looks increasingly likely.
It is, without question, the only show in town this summer.
Mantel’s initial instructions to Poulton when they sat down to discuss the adaptations were to tear up the books and create a new theatrical work. And from the outset, her influence on the play has been central to its success.
She was a frequent presence at rehearsals, providing each of the actors with a two-page character sketch to work from.
The show’s producer, Matthew Byam Shaw, who bought the rights to Wolf Hall and commissioned the adaptations, says Mantel took on a matriarchal role: ‘Her tact, diplomacy and care for individuals was extraordinary.’
Fans of Mantel’s books, which have sold more than 1.6 million copies in the UK alone and earned the author two Man Booker prizes (in 2009 and 2012), have been flocking to the theatre, and Tudor-mad American tourists have been flying in to get their fix.
One U.S. producer summed up its appeal to Byam Shaw with a tantalising phrase: ‘They are,’ he said, ‘a Tudor version of The West Wing meets The Sopranos.’
Our own celebrities and VIPs have also been clamouring to get seats ever since the London production started previewing last month. Education Secretary Michael Gove and Chancellor George Osborne were among the first to see it, and stars Orlando Bloom and Alan Rickman have raved about the production.
Some readers of the books confess to finding Mantel’s highly stylistic prose difficult to read, but the plays are far more accessible, with fewer characters and the narrative pace of a thriller.
You don’t need to have read the books to enjoy the theatrical adaptations. Most people know the background to Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Observing Cromwell manipulating the Tudor court is like watching Kevin Spacey in House Of Cards.
There have been a few changes to the plays since they transferred to the West End. Each has been shortened by ten minutes and the comedy element has been ramped up (Mantel says she loved writing the jokes).
So what makes Wolf Hall and its sequel so compelling to contemporary audiences?
The rise of Ukip and the debate about Europe has made the plays topical again. Henry VIII’s split with Rome in 1534 was the first time a major European power had broken away from the Church.
England was asserting independence from the Continent, a fact not lost on current audiences, who have been cheering during some of the anti-French jokes (‘especially those in the expensive seats’, says Ben Miles, who plays Cromwell) .
But perhaps the real reason it resonates is because it’s effectively the rags-to-riches tale of Cromwell, the poor boy from the wrong side of the tracks in Putney who became Henry VIII’s most valued adviser, spin doctor and fixer.
After running away from his violent father aged 15, Cromwell became a mercenary in France, a banker in Italy and a wool merchant in Flanders. He was a charming, multilingual diplomat who understood how Europe worked. He also understood money and trade.
Some historians have accused Mantel of rewriting history in her portrayal of Cromwell.
Traditionally, he was always cast as a villain. Mantel’s Cromwell is a wise man and decent minister.
That he has to do some dirty work to ensure the survival of the Tudor dynasty makes him all the more appealing.
Mantel is emphatic that although she used original sources for her research, her books are novels, not historical documents, and they are supposed to be from Cromwell’s point of view.
‘Right from the outset of Wolf Hall, the camera is behind Cromwell’s eyes, but I didn’t want to write in the first person,’ she says.
‘That’s what makes it different to other books about that period, because we are not used to seeing those events from his viewpoint.’
Mantel is currently writing the third novel in the series, but before that we can look forward to a TV series next year starring Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Homeland’s Damian Lewis as Henry.
Meanwhile, on a London stage this summer, the most compelling historical drama for decades casts its spectacular spell.
John Ramm is... THOMAS MORE - Councillor to Henry VIII
‘More is a religious fanatic who presides over executions and torture’
Hilary Mantel ‘More would keep a tribe of Freudian analysts in business for life. An absent-minded professor with a sideline in torture, he turns on a sixpence, from threatening to cajoling to whimsical.’ John Ramm ‘Audiences always want to know why my Thomas More is so unpleasant at the start of Wolf Hall. He is so different from the one I grew up with – Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, with Paul Scofield. Mantel’s More is a religious fanatic who presides over executions and torture. He is ill at ease and is constantly flagellating himself and others for not being pious enough.’
Leah Brotherhead is... JANE SEYMOUR - Third wife of Henry VIII
‘She watched the two queens before her – and did the opposite’
Hilary Mantel ‘Historians seem to suggest that she was the stupid wife, but she may have been the smartest of all. The game plan was to look at what Anne Boleyn had done, and do the opposite.’ Leah Brotherhead ‘Hilary’s version of Jane is that she was very observant – she watched the two queens who went before her and saw how they dealt with their positions and thought, “I’m going to do this a different way.” She did not get involved in politics or religion, even though she probably didn’t approve of the break with the Catholic Church. She brought Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth back into the court. She was family-minded.’
Lydia Leonard is... ANNE BOLEYN - Henry’s second wife
‘She is accused of everything from having six fingers to being a witch’
Hilary Mantel ‘She is elegant, reserved, cerebral and astute. Her campaign to be queen is fought with patience and cunning. She was always cooler than the king, and finds his adoration irritating.’ Lydia Leonard ‘Hilary would turn up while we were rehearsing and come forth with a fount of knowledge about the period. How Anne gets from being a knight’s daughter to a queen is an audacious achievement and as a result she has every accusation that the lurid imaginations of Europe can thrust on her, from having six fingers to being a witch.’
Ben Miles is... THOMAS CROMWELL - Henry VIII’s Chief Minister
‘I’m on six hours – I hide bits of bread backstage for when I get hungry’
Hilary Mantel ‘He is the calmest person in the room, the best man in a crisis. When he is angry, which is rare, he is terrifying. He is flexible, pragmatic and shrewd, with a streak of sardonic humour and his religious feelings are strong and genuine. Cromwell does not control a vast spy network, but is affable and gregarious, and can easily convince people.’
Ben Miles ‘I am on stage for up to six hours a day and so there are moments when I don’t know which scene I’m in. I used to pin up sheets to remind me what was coming next and hide away bits of bread backstage for when I get hungry.’
Nathaniel Parker is... KING HENRY VIII - Second in the Tudor dynasty
‘Henry isn’t slapping thighs and grabbing wenches. He’s a killer’
Hilary Mantel ‘Henry is both callous and vulnerable, hard-shelled and inwardly soft. He is highly emotional, religious, superstitious and vulnerable to panic. He’s afraid of dying without an heir so has become a hypochondriac, and self-pity has corrupted his character.’
Nathaniel Parker ‘Mantel’s Henry is not chewing chicken bones, slapping his thighs and grabbing wenches. He takes bold decisions, kills his advisers and separates England from the Catholic Church. Yet Hilary gives him a vulnerability. When Hilary saw me rehearse, she came up and said, “It’s my Henry.” That was sweet.’
Paul Jesson is... CARDINAL WOLSEY - Cardinal & Lord Chancellor
‘He is Europe’s greatest statesman and greatest fraud, rich and suave
Hilary Mantel ‘He is Europe’s greatest statesman and greatest fraud. He is more than the king’s minister, he is the “alternative king”, ostentatious and rich; suave, authoritative, calm. He is so sure of himself that his unravelling is total, unexpected and tragic.’
Paul Jesson ‘Hilary portrays Wolsey and Henry as being very close. He is probably the most powerful crown servant there has ever been – and wealthy. In the play I make a great journey from being as great as the king to being arrested. Wolsey’s downfall came because he couldn’t get Henry VIII what he wanted most: a divorce.’
Lucy Briers is... CATHERINE OF ARAGON - Married to Henry for 24 years
‘Once I had a complete blank, so now I keep a crib sheet in my corset’
Hilary Mantel ‘When she is told she has failed, because she has only given Henry a daughter, and a woman can’t reign, there must be a part of her that asks, “Why not?” Once the divorce plan is out in the open, no notion of feminine obedience constrains her. She fights with every weapon she can find.’
Lucy Briers ‘Catherine is very religious and thinks it’s God’s will she remains on the throne. She loves Henry right up to her death and she worries that he will burn in Hell because of what he has done. I once had a complete blank about what scene comes next, so I keep a crib sheet down my corset.
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