Hilary Mantel on adapting The Mirror and the Light for stage

Mantel had to collaborate remotely with actor Ben Miles to transform latest book into stage production

Yes they are fiction and yes historians get irritated that students read them as incontrovertible fact, but Dame Hilary Mantel maintains that you won’t go far wrong in understanding Tudor intrigue if you read her bestselling Wolf Hall trilogy.

“I have to say, I think I’ve given Thomas Cromwell a better audience, a better airing, a better public than historians have managed to do through the ages,” she told the Guardian.

Mantel was speaking as it was announced that her third and concluding Cromwell novel, The Mirror and the Light, will be staged in a partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in the West End of London from September.

Her novels, two of which won the Booker prize, have made Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who became Henry VIII’s right-hand man, better known than ever before.

Historians have previously expressed concern that the books are seen as fact by some of their students.

It is not a worry Mantel has much time for. “I stick as closely as I can to the historical record. You won’t go far wrong if you want to know about Thomas Cromwell by reading those books.

“It is not a locked box to which only historians have the key. There’s a great deal that the record doesn’t tell us, that was never on the record or for some reason has been lost and yet there are scenes, conversations that we know were crucial.

“It is the job of novelist to work between the lines and I don’t think for a moment that anyone is confused between fact and fiction. Every time I say ‘he thought’, they know I’m making it up, that I do not have access to the inside of a dead man’s head.”

Historians, Mantel suggested, had done a poor job until Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “great biography came along as a sort of complement to the work I’ve done in fiction.”

Mantel has adapted her third book for the stage with the actor Ben Miles, who played Cromwell in the first two parts at Stratford-upon-Avon in 2014, followed by the West End and Broadway, and will do so again this year.

The pandemic forced it to become a collaboration via email.

You can only do so much on Zoom, Mantel said, “because every line has to find its precise form for the next line to play off it. You have to have precision. We would pass our drafts to and fro, getting them to work and then polish them up line by line.

“We had to be good clerks to each other.”

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up the Bodies in 2014.
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up the Bodies in 2014. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It was sometimes “a bit laborious,” she said. “There’s a process by which, if you’re together, you kind of just look at each other and you know whether something is working or not. I found, in these spaces in between, I would sometimes get very nervous … ‘Have I written absolute nonsense?’ But a bit of nervousness doesn’t do writing any harm. It introduced an element of danger.”

Miles said writing in isolation did at least mean there was “air and space and time … I could hear the lines in my head as I was going about other things. It wasn’t a rushed process, it wasn’t a frenzied process.”

Mantel said live theatre was the perfect medium for historical drama and “for the retelling of history, because it reminds us that nothing can be fixed, everything is a process, everything is to be played for.

“It reminds us that these people didn’t know what was going to happen in the next five minutes. We look at it with hindsight. But in the theatre that corrupting influence of hindsight, it vanishes because every night is a fresh telling and I hope the audiences will feel that.

“Miles recalled people coming up to him after performances and saying ‘Oh, I didn’t know which Henry was going to go,’ which always felt like a terrific compliment.

“One of the thrilling things about performing the plays was conveying to an audience or causing the audience to collectively believe that they were in the present moment. It wasn’t the past any more, it was the present.”

  • The production will run at the Gielgud in London from 23 September to 28 November, with tickets available from 27 May.

Contributor

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hilary Mantel play to close amid Covid uncertainty
Royal Shakespeare Company cancels planned extension of The Mirror and the Light in West End

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

26, Oct, 2021 @2:33 PM

Article image
The Mirror and the Light review – Cromwell’s spell is finally broken
The climactic play based on Hilary Mantel’s magisterial trilogy has wit and grace but no great dramatic release

Claire Armitstead

06, Oct, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
RSC wins rights to stage Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell novels

Artistic director Gregory Doran says he has perfect actor in mind to play lead in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

23, Jan, 2013 @6:09 PM

Article image
Hilary Mantel interview: 'My problem is never ideas. My problem is time'

The Wolf Hall novelist on stage adaptations, illness and how morphine helped her track down Margaret Thatcher's assassin. Interview by Tim Adams

Interview by Tim Adams

26, Apr, 2014 @2:30 PM

Article image
Hilary Mantel on staging The Mirror and the Light: ‘I should have been doing this all my life’
As the third part of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy hits the stage, the writer talks about the perils of political powerplay, fleeing Brexit to Ireland and setting her next novel in more recent times

Mark Lawson

09, Sep, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Wolf Hall play to move to West End – but readers must wait for third novel
Hilary Mantel asks readers hoping for third book in Thomas Cromwell trilogy to be patient as RSC announces transfer

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

06, Mar, 2014 @4:00 AM

Article image
Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies review – a familiar tale infused with thrilling originality of storytelling

Mark Lawson: Mike Poulton has created two darkly comic plays that will not disappoint fans of modern political dramas such as House of Cards

Mark Lawson

18, May, 2014 @12:38 PM

Hilary Mantel on having her Cromwell novels adapted by the RSC - video

The Wolf Hall author on seeing characters that have been 'fighting to get off the page' put on stage

23, Jan, 2013 @2:30 PM

Article image
Keep it moving: Jeremy Herrin on staging Hilary Mantel's Tudor epics

How do you dramatise 1,000 pages of historical intrigue? There's no time to waste, director Jeremy Herrin tells Catherine Love

Catherine Love

25, Apr, 2014 @11:31 AM

Article image
Royal Shakespeare Company to stage Robert Harris's Cicero trilogy
Described by director as ‘Rome meets the West Wing’, six-play adaption will be grand finale of the company’s Rome season

Maev Kennedy

01, Feb, 2017 @4:23 PM