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Page to stage: Bringing Wolf Hall to life

First Published 29 May 2014, Last Updated 2 June 2014

You could never accuse Jeremy Herrin of not enjoying the thrill of a risk. “The penalties are terrifying,” he tells me, with a glint of excitement in his eye. “It’s one of those jobs where you think, the novels have been so successful, you’re more likely to fail than anything else. I love those sort of jobs… there’s just a chance of getting away with it.”

We’re sitting discussing his hugely successful adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell histories Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and while that excitement, twinkle or whatever other cliché you could throw at it is undeniably there, I’m more overwhelmed by just how tired he looks.

If this sounds harsh, let me assure you, post-tech exhaustion never impedes on Herrin’s ability to be the best interviewee you could hope for – eloquent, generous, funny and fiercely intelligent just about covers it – but after nearly two years combining the biggest job of his career and RSC debut with taking the helm at one of the country’s most exciting and demanding theatre companies, Headlong, you can forgive a man for just ever so slightly wearily feeling like he’s “looking at an almost vertical climb” days before the double bill will face the press.

But two weeks later, unless you’ve been living in a cultural vacuum you’ll know his plays were met in the West End with as rapt applause and loquacious critical approval as they were when they premiered at the RSC’s home in Stratford upon Avon. However, any initial trepidation – not that he’d call it that, making yourself vulnerable is, according to Herrin: “what being brave creatively is” – at taking on the vast project would undoubtedly have been justified. First dreamt up more than three years ago, bringing two of the most successful, detailed and weighty – not to mention Booker Prize-winning or ardently adored – novels to the stage is surely a daunting prospect for even a director who enjoys chasing “victory from the jaws of defeat”?

“It’s never a matter of length. You’ve just got to identify that there is in fact a play lurking under the lines”

“How do you translate 1,000 pages of the most sublime novel writing into a completely different medium? The answer is with a lot of hard work, with a lot of collaboration, a lot of creativity and a really good team,” Herrin explains matter-of-factly when I question him on the process that has led to the delivery of Mantel’s compulsive tomes to the stage with such success.

For this vital collaboration, Mantel, who has spoken frequently of longing to see her many Tudor characters walk from the pages of her novels and introduced herself to the Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies company as “Thomas Cromwell’s representative on Earth”, was crucially on board and joined by the king of classical adaptations including last year’s Fortune’s Fool at the Old Vic and the Donmar Warehouse’s Luise Miller, Mike Poulton.

Convinced to delay his plans of writing his debut novel and come on board after realising that he would be “an idiot to pass up the opportunity of adapting one of the best reads I’d ever read”, Poulton had just one condition; he had to get on with Mantel. While I dug as best I could for stories of furious rows and book-throwing disagreements when I spoke to Poulton, there was none to be had. Mantel agreed to give Poulton a free hand on adaptation and “Hilary couldn’t have been more helpful”, the writer explained. “She has been there all the time playing a major part in the creation of the adaptations, and the working relationship has really been what kept me going over what turned out to be three years.”

The instant reaction to most when considering Poulton’s job would be to feel sheer panic at the thought of condensing those “1,000 pages of the most sublime” into what is now two pacey and, in comparison, slight three hour plays. Firstly, when Poulton first began work there was only one book, Wolf Hall; so a mere 674 pages then. Secondly, “It’s never a matter of length,” Poulton tells me pointedly, clearly having been asked the question a million times before. “You’ve just got to identify that there is in fact a play lurking under the lines and you’ve got to work out whether there is a dramatic path through the narrative.” For Poulton, there clearly was, but there was one thing missing, a beheading.

“I said [to Mantel], ‘Look, if you can get me to the death of Anne Boleyn, I’ve got the perfect structure for a play because by the interval I can have her crowned and then at the end I can cut her head off.’… Hilary and I were firing each other up and she was writing and writing away, and she was sending me a chunk at a time. Eventually she did get to the death of Anne Boleyn, but she’d written another novel!”

“My heart would sink when someone would wheel out a dog-eared copy of the novel and say ‘Yes, but it says here on this…”

Another novel meant another play, and that required a company who could pull off a double bill of such magnitude, Poulton’s “natural home”, the RSC. For Herrin, it was less familiar territory. “I’ve always identified myself with the Royal Court and the National [Theatre]… but the RSC is a legendary theatre company and an absolutely brilliant worldwide theatre brand that brings amazing audiences and an amazing intention to the work, so it’s been absolutely fantastic,” he explained, “just the skills in the theatre company and the resources and scale of the company makes it the sort of place that can pull something like this off.”

Multiple drafts followed – Herrin guesses the first he saw when he was brought on to the project must have been at least number seven – with workshops and rehearsals, with the whole trio nearly always in the room continually tweaking and finessing the script, eventually condensing Poulton’s first eleven hour attempt into its final six.

For those who have devoured Mantel’s books, the more literal among us would perhaps imagine the key to bringing the shows alive would be to recreate the world she creates in all its rich, detailed opulence; much like the room in which I interviewed Herrin at the shows’ West End home at the Aldywch Theatre, all velvet curtains, decadent furniture and bowls of cherries. Okay, so there were no cherries present but food is about the only thing to make it from that list onto the stage. Along with Cromwell’s internal monologue – a constant presence in Mantel’s books – the detailed settings are gone, replaced by a minimalist almost brutalist architecture-inspired set, just Christopher Ingram’s impeccable costumes adding a dash of luxury.

“My heart would sink when someone would wheel out a dog-eared copy of the novel and say ‘Yes, but it says here on this…” Herrin explains when we discuss this vital creation of a stage language that would keep the essence of Mantel’s world but offer audiences a new perspective. “Audiences are extremely deft at interpreting subtext, if you’ve got an actor in the centre of it who is working with great subtlety, you imagine that yourself.” Ben Miles’ compelling and multifaceted portrayal more than achieves this and the rest of the flourishes to boost the imagination are delivered with Paule Constable’s transformative lighting and a company who, as Poulton puts it, have to “bring on the River Thames with them”, in all Mantel’s evocative, cold atmospheric wonder.

“I would love to see a third play, but it’s too early to start counting chickens”

For while the beauty of the books are that you can almost reach out and touch the characters as they walk from Austin Friars to Westminster or board a freezing boat up the Thames, Herrin’s productions have made this a reality; something that must have been a rare treat for a novelist. While a book goes to print and is forever immortalised by the final edit, the most important aspect of theatre is it is live. A play never stops evolving, even long after press night when, for a theatre journalist, it can be tempting to move on. “We won’t let it alone,” Poulton tells me, even after three years of hard graft. “Even the audience for the last performance will be seeing it for the first time and one has got to make sure that it’s kept up to scratch and if there are improvements we see, we’ll make them.”

Of course, for these three collaborators life will move on and new projects will take the place of this Tudor epic. Herrin, an advocate for the creativity involved in working on page to stage adaptations, is currently working with a very famous, albeit “nameless” for now, novelist about adapting his work for Headlong, while Poulton will no doubt be pulled away from his novel writing again soon for another not to be missed opportunity. But there is, of course, one such project that everyone will be waiting to hear news of, Mantel’s The Mirror And The Light, the unpublished finale of the trilogy.

“We have plans yes,” Poulton carefully tells me when I enquire into the possibility of someday seeing Cromwell’s end of days on stage. “She doesn’t know [when it will be finished]… Scenes are developing all over the place and she will know when it’s finished because all the pieces of the jigsaw will fit together… I would love to see a third play, but it’s too early to start counting chickens.” And for Herrin? “It would be absolutely brilliant to put the three of them on together, but kind of tiring, so I don’t know…” And there it is again, that excited glint as the thought of the challenge settles in. “It would really be thrilling…”

 

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