Adapting novels for the theatre

Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn and Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII in rehearsals for ‘Wolf Hall’

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Before heading out to talk to Mike Poulton about adapting Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage, I pop the two books on the scales. The hardback copies of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prizewinning novels weigh in at around a kilogram each: not just a workout for the mind, then. These are epic texts. “The audiobook of Wolf Hall is 24 hours,” Poulton wryly observes.

No wonder Poulton hesitated when first asked whether they could be adapted. “Probably not,” was his initial response. But Thomas Cromwell, the central character in the two novels, is nothing if not persuasive. Mantel herself has observed that “from the moment I started writing Wolf Hall, the characters were fighting to be off the page”. And so, three years and nine drafts after that initial inquiry, Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn et al are to tread the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

They are, unsurprisingly, a hot ticket. Countless readers worldwide have buried themselves in Mantel’s brilliant novels, which follow Cromwell’s path from abused blacksmith’s son to Henry VIII’s right-hand man and depict the Tudor world in all its glistening, gory vigour. That world seems a natural fit for the RSC: the mix of court intrigue, power struggles and personal conscience feels not unlike a Shakespeare play. And the novels are packed with vivid characters and dialogue.

Even so, the endeavour is fraught with risk. A great novel does not necessarily make a great play. The two are very different beasts. A book offers private pleasure, the chance to people your mind with characters, to savour prose, to read as much or as little as you please. The joys of theatre are communal, dynamic and transient. The different narrative demands of the genres can chafe, leaving stage adapt­ations looking flat and linear.

Reverence for the original text can be a false friend: sometimes the adapt­ations that work best are the boldest. Helen Edmundson’s Shared Experience version of Anna Karenina, for instance, had Anna and Levin talk to each other constantly across the stage (this doesn’t happen in the book); Tom Morris’s Bristol Old Vic staging of Swallows and Amazons seized on the resourcefulness of the children in the book and spliced it with theatrical make-believe (creating a parrot from feather dusters, for example).

Poulton (an experienced adaptor who has already taken on The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur for the RSC and has a version of Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool coming up at London’s Old Vic) is the first to acknowledge the dangers of the task and worked closely with Mantel, who has written new dialogue specifically for the stage.

“Both Hilary and I were absolutely certain from the beginning that what we had to do was create something new,” he says. “We had to create a viable play, rather than just try to put the novel on its feet – because you can’t do that. In a novel you take your time, you enjoy the pictures it creates in your mind, you go back and reread. In a play you cannot afford to pause and reflect: you want people to be sitting on the edge of their seats. It’s a completely different dynamic.”

Adaptor Mike Poulton

He has avoided the temptation of an onstage narrator – “a pace-killer”. Instead the creative team has worked on finding dramatic techniques to get “difficult ideas across in visual terms”. For instance, there are several “very telling dances” in the play.

The novels are vividly pictorial, steeping the reader in the detailed realities of life in Tudor England, from the savage burning of a supposed heretic to the homely sounds and smells of domestic life. The dramatisation has to recreate that intensity for fans, while also making sense to anyone who has never opened the books. The heartbreak, Poulton says, has been choosing what to leave out. “The one thing you can’t do is condense it and say we’ll do broad brushstrokes,” he says. “You can’t ask an actor to play broad brushstrokes.”

At the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, west London, Geoffrey Beevers has faced a similar headache: he has adapted George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Again the novel’s size is a challenge: to stage it all would be unwieldy; to cut it down would diminish it. His solution has been to divide it into three plays, organised not chronologically but around three main storylines. Each play stands alone but, seen as a trilogy, Beevers hopes they reflect the novel’s rich complexity.

“The stories overlap, so you get several scenes that are repeated in the different dramas, but seen from a different angle,” he says. “My hope is that by the time you’ve seen all three plays, you understand how people’s lives intertwine around each other.”

He adds: “Middlemarch is so many people’s perfect novel, so you’re on a hiding to nothing in a way. But you’re not trying to match the novel; you’re trying to bring out its dramatic heart.”

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge in any dramatisation is the author’s prose style. Lose Eliot’s subtly witty descriptions of her characters, and you lose much of the book’s wisdom. Beevers has deliberately retained Eliot’s voice: the characters on stage deliver snippets from the narration and even comment on themselves.

“It’s a joy when people are laughing at one of her subtler remarks because it’s like everyone reading the book together,” says Beevers. “It’s a shared, live experience. And it might inspire people to read the book.”

A scene from ‘Middlemarch – The Doctor’s Story'

For Poulton, the task is even trickier. Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies are written in the present tense and from Cromwell’s point of view. This grammatical detail is crucial to their success. We may know what happened in history, but open the books and hindsight falls away: we are there with Cromwell, navigating the dangerous currents of Tudor politics. It’s partly this narrative trick, this immediacy, that makes history come alive. The interplay between events and Cromwell’s thoughts and memories creates a sense of the past infusing the present. Reading the story, you are inside his experience; watching it on stage, you are outside it. What to do?

“You cannot have Thomas standing on stage for an hour thinking to himself,” says Poulton. “People would go home! We think we’ve found a solution ... Thomas is on stage all the time, and what I’ve tried to do is to make the audience think they are in the room with him. One great advantage of the Swan Theatre is it has an intimate feel to it: you think that you are another character on the stage.”

He explains that Cromwell will share his private thoughts with two confidants, while the ghosts that haunt him will actually walk the stage, drawing the audience into his inner world. By harnessing the immediacy of theatre you can release that sense of living through history, he suggests. “We want a stage that is a magical box of tricks that can take you anywhere. Through dappled sunlight, to the middle of the Thames, to the depths of the forest, to a royal palace. We’ve created a space where anything can happen.”

‘Wolf Hall’, December 11 to March 29, ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, December 19 to March 29, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, rsc.org.uk

‘Middlemarch – Dorothea’s Story’, to January 30, ‘The Doctor’s Story’, to January 31, ‘Fred and Mary’, December 4 to February 1, Trilogy Days, December 27 to January 25, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, orangetreetheatre.co.uk

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