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The soft-spoken Dame Hilary Mantel isn’t someone you imagine spearheading a second British invasion of America. But that’s exactly what the 62-year-old author has done with her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, about the intrigue surrounding the court of King Henry VIII.
The novels, which revolve around Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, have become a bona fide literary phenomenon, translated into 36 languages and collectively selling some 3 million copies worldwide. Mantel won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for both books, one of only three authors to achieve a double win and the first woman to do so. The trilogy’s third installment, The Mirror and the Light, is in the pipeline.
The works have now arrived in the U.S. with a vengeance. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall: Parts 1 & 2, incorporating both of the published books, is currently in previews on Broadway. It opens April 9 at the Winter Garden Theatre, following acclaimed runs at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Aldwych Theatre in London’s West End.
The production, which is nominated for the Olivier Award for best play, has been compared to the RSC’s landmark epic The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. Both parts can be seen in one day with a dinner break or on successive evenings. The entire British cast — led by Ben Miles as Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker as Henry and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn — has been imported for the production thanks to an arrangement with Actors’ Equity.
Arriving almost concurrently is the hugely successful BBC six-part miniseries Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis (Homeland) as Henry. It begins airing on PBS on April 5, just days before the stage version’s opening night.
Read More ‘Wolf Hall’: London Theater Review
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter at her New York penthouse apartment just a stone’s throw from the Winter Garden, Mantel, who last year was made a dame (the female equivalent of a knighthood), says she’s been very involved almost since the beginning with the stage production, adapted by playwright Mike Poulton and directed by Jeremy Herrin.
“Mike deserves the primary credit, but I was able to contribute scene by scene, line by line,” she says.
She’s come to New York to help tailor the production for Broadway. It’s been slightly shortened because of Broadway’s later starting times, she’s changed some terms likely to be unfamiliar to American audiences and she’s “toned down” some of the obscenities.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, because this is the pinnacle of my writing life,” she comments. “I love the theater — I always have — but I never thought I’d get the chance to actually work in it.”
Mantel was a well-respected and moderately selling author before Wolf Hall, with her prodigious output, including both historical and contemporary novels, short stories and an acclaimed memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. But nothing prepared her for the massive success of her books about Cromwell.
Read More ‘Wolf Hall’ Bound for Broadway
Describing the saga’s beginnings, she says, “There was a nervous moment when I approached my publisher and said, ‘Henry VIII.’ But I think they trusted me a great deal. When I explained what was unique about it, they became excited. You have to combat certain expectations. It’s not just about the royalty — it’s about the whole society.”
“What happened was that it knocked down the divide between literary and popular fiction,” she adds.
Almost immediately upon starting the first book, she knew that she was onto something.
“I had a very strong feeling that it was something special,” she says. She didn’t research the project beforehand but rather while she was writing. “To me, the research is a creative process,” she explains. And sometimes she found herself taken by surprise.
“In some ways, it was like watching a film,” she notes. “As soon as the character Cardinal Wolsey walked in and started talking, I knew he wasn’t going anywhere.”
Even while all this is going on, she’s continuing to write The Mirror and the Light, which her publishers are obviously eagerly awaiting.
“I even write during the rehearsals,” she says. “When people see me in the theater, they say, ‘Why aren’t you at home writing the third book?’ which is very flattering.”
The stage version is even informing her current writing.
“In the third book, I describe an early meeting between Cromwell and [Thomas] More, which is invented but could have taken place when Cromwell was a small child and More was a teenager,” she explains. “It came to me during the course of the plays while watching the two actors. And then I went home and wrote the episode. The actors read it, and it practically rippled through their performances. They knew something they hadn’t known before.”
Mantel has gone from writing about royalty to interacting with royalty, with Prince Charles professing himself a fan when they met. But it hasn’t been without controversy: In a 2013 speech she delivered at the British Museum about royal women, she described Kate Middleton as a “shop window mannequin.” But she says her remarks were taken out of context and wildly misinterpreted by the media and the public.
“I spoke about Kate during the course of a complicated lecture in which I referenced many other royal figures,” she states. “When I referred to her as a plastic princess, I wasn’t talking about her; I was talking about her image and about the way she had been created as a popular phenomenon.”
She airily dismisses the many negative comments subsequently posted online, saying, “You can no more have a debate with anonymous people than you can with a wild animal. I don’t go out to stir up controversy, but I’m not going to be censored.”
Mantel continues to tinker with the plays even during the final preview performances, and she’s well aware of the amazingly timed confluence between the U.S. arrivals of both the stage production and the TV series.
“And the author sitting in the Winter Garden in the afternoon, writing the third book,” she adds. “It’s an unprecedented set of circumstances.”
Mantel says that the experience of working in the theater has sparked a desire to try playwriting herself.
“This has been a new way of working,” she says happily. “I don’t mind working alone in a room, but I’d be equally happy to work as part of a team again. I find that not only does it suit me, it inspires me.”
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