‘Exhilarated’ Hilary Mantel plans theatre encore – once third Cromwell novel is ‘on paper’

  • @MrNickClark

Hilary Mantel has hinted she will produce more work for the theatre after an “exhilarating six months” working on the stage adaptations of her novels about Thomas Cromwell, but she wants to finish the much-anticipated third book first.

The theatre adaptations of Mantel’s two Man Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are set to transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon to London’s West End this spring, it was announced yesterday.

The author said her priority was “getting the third book on paper” in reference to the third Cromwell novel The Mirror and the Light, “but I wouldn’t say working in the theatre again will not happen.”

The books were adapted by Mike Poulton, and Mantel suggested that further work in the theatre could be another adaptation: “I would love to work with Mike again, he’s a brilliant adapter; I’ve learnt so much from him.” The third book will almost certainly be produced for the stage.

Mantel said: “The theatre is a great love of mine. And I’ve often thought my books are actually gigantic out-of-control plays, or huge, huge shooting scripts. It’s wonderful to take that side of your work and run with it.”

The first dramatisation of the two novels about the rise of Cromwell from a blacksmith’s son to chief adviser to Henry VIII opened at the Swan Theatre in Stratford in December, with most of the tickets selling out before opening night. It will open in the Aldwych Theatre in the West End on 1 May.

Mantel said she had been “very much an insider” on the two productions, which were directed by Jeremy Herrin. “I’ve had the privilege of being deeply involved in the evolution and the progression of the shows.”

She said the experience had been a “huge learning curve” before continuing: “It has been probably the most exhilarating six months of my writing career and the one in which I’ve learnt the most and had the most fun.”

Poulton worked with Mantel for over three years on the project and he described the collaboration as “extremely happy and close”.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in the stage adaptation of ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel

“The complexity of the material meant adapting the books was a huge challenge,” she said. “What helps is I’m very visual as a writer and I tend to privilege action and dialogue rather than introspection.”

Much of the dialogue in the play is straight from the books.

The two novels have sold 1.8 million copies in the UK and 1.2 million copies in America. Bring Up the Bodies became the first Booker Prize winner to make it in the top 10 of the most borrowed books at the library, according to the official numbers compiled by Public Lending Right.

She would not commit to a finish date as “my involvement with these productions has been far greater than I expected. But I’ve been repaid for every moment I’ve put in because of the insights I’ve got daily.”

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies will also be adapted for television by the BBC starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell.

Mantel said: “If I go back five years in my writing career, I had a small group of readers who were very precious to me. I had steady but never spectacular sales. My critical reputation was way in advance of my sales.

“Suddenly we’d broken down this barrier that’s perceived to exist between the literary novel and big sales and we haven’t done it by compromising the material.”

The books have proved hugely popular partly because of the ongoing fascination with the Tudors. “It’s something that goes really deep into our national psyche. It’s a period of nation-making, of self-definition but on the human level we have this fantastic story that you couldn’t make up,” Mantel said.

“Henry VIII is a monster, but he’s our monster. No other nation has a king who had six wives and cut the heads off two. We’re perversely proud of Henry.”