Before I even start on a book to play discussion of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books I should be honest with you, there are no secrets here… I am
obsessed fascinated by the Tudors. History in general is one of my favourite genres but the Tudors (and the War of the Roses) has had a particular draw over recent years. And when I get interested in something, I really go for it, I’ll read it all from fictional Phillipa Gregory and Alison Weir to factual David Starkey and Antonia Fraser. As yet I have not got bored, although I should be clear that other historical periods are available, it’s going to get all kinds of Tudor right now.
From page one, I was pretty much going to either adore these books or really hate them. I know some people who just couldn’t get on with the writing style but I loved them. For those of you who don’t know, Mantel’s books (the third one is yet to be published at time of writing) chronicle the rise of one of historical England’s much maligned figures, Thomas Cromwell who certainly committed some questionable acts during his time as Cardinal Wolsey’s and then Henry VIII’s right hand man. If these names don’t mean much to you, I’m sure you have at least heard of Henry VIII and his six wives – Anne Boleyn being arguably the most well known today.
I would say that you don’t need to have any prior knowledge or particular interest in the Tudors to enjoy these books. The writing style is so unique that that in itself makes them worth a read, and the story is dark and gripping with many a twist and turn. For anyone who does know a bit about the era, then Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and the players around him is fascinating and a little thrilling as you are guided to look at events in a different way.
When I booked tickets to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the stage adaptations (both in one day) I was nervous about how they would approach it – how could the style and characterisation be portrayed. It’s fair to say the writing style wasn’t carried through, as was to be expected it was a fairly traditional script and setting. However the adaptation by Mike Poulton, direction by Jeremy Herrin and all the actors were wonderful and conveyed Mantel’s version of Tudor history almost to perfection. Ben Miles played Cromwell just right and I also particularly enjoyed Paul Jesson as Wolsey. As soon as the lights went down on the auditorium and up on the stage I felt a physical shiver of excitement run through the audience. It was really lovely to be in what felt like an audience thrilled to be there and all united in anticipation of how this adaptation was going to work out.
The staging (the designer was Christopher Oram) evoked the oppressive Tudor court, full of intrigues and the story was as enthralling in the flesh as I could have hoped. The only part of the adaptation I didn’t like was the slapstick element they had added in, particularly with the character of Christophe. In the books I found him one of the most interesting, at times dark, side characters. However he had been made into a comic sidekick and whilst I don’t deny that humour was needed in this production, there was enough in the original source material not to need this. The way his character was changed didn’t sit well with me (the rat moment anyone?) and although it was funny and crowd-pleasing it felt too different from the book and not really necessary.
My main complaint about seeing these two plays, was that I wished I could have seen (and of course read) whatever Mantel has in store for us for the last in the trilogy! It was so well done that I could have sat through another installment, As a reader, I’m hotly anticipating the final book, why is it that even though I know what’s going to happen, I just can’t wait to see how Mantel gets us there.
Have you seen and read Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies? What do you think of page to stage adaptations in general?