With Mike Poulton’s two play adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies set to open on Broadway on April 9th, the scripts of both plays have been made available in a single volume original from Picador. Paring down and shaping Mantel’s panoramic recreation of the court of Henry VIII with its intrigues and power struggles for the stage is no doubt a daunting task. That Poulton managed it so successfully—the plays which premiered in December 2013 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon under the aegis of the Royal Shakespeare Company won lavish critical praise—is nothing short of remarkable.
This is not to say that the plays are a substitute for the novels. They are two different animals. The novels provide a narrative experience rich in breadth and detail, impossible to capture on the stage. The plays focus on illuminating the larger whole through dramatic moments. Poulton’s adaptations are a separate work of their own, and need to be judged on their own merits.
Moreover, while it is useful to have the scripts available, plays need to be judged in terms of their performance. The test of great play is not on the printed page; it is on the stage.
With all of this in mind Wolf Hall, the first of the plays, deals with Henry’s disenchantment with his first wife Kathrine of Aragon because of her failure to provide him with a male heir, his passion for Anne Boleyn, and his inability to persuade the Pope to grant him a divorce through the agency of his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Woolsey. That failure opens the door for the political advancement of Thomas Cromwell, a trusted aid to Woolsey.
Bring Up the Bodies begins with Anne Boleyn now Queen doing no better than Katherine at providing the desired male heir, and Henry’s attraction to Jane Seymour. Cromwell, despite his common background, has now become the King’s chief aide, and it becomes his job to take care of another divorce problem. Though he doesn’t manage the divorce, he does manage to take care of the problem.
Both plays develop a variety of intense dramatic conflicts ripe for scenery eating; roles actors would kill for: the wily Cromwell, the explosive Anne, the demanding King, as well as a host of minor figures. With a dramatic structure in the mode of Shakespeare’s histories, Poulton covers the stage with a host of actors playing numerous short scenes. Wolf Hall is four acts in 30 scenes; Bring Up the Bodies is five acts in 32 scenes.
Included in the Picador edition is a short introduction by Poulton and a lengthy sketch of each of the play’s characters by Hilary Mantel. The latter would be quite useful for both readers only passing familiar with the material and more especially actors looking for background and back story.
You may want to read these stage versions, but you don’t want to miss out on the novels themselves.
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