Taking up the Mantel
October 15, 2013
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies tell the story of Thomas Cromwell, his rise to power and, soon to come in The Mirror and the Light, his ultimate and untimely demise and downfall.
Mike Poulton's adaptations of her books trace the decades of the era and fit them snugly into an easy theatrical beast.
There's a lot of talking. A lot of tension. And this terrifies my friends.
'Will I need a doctorate in late-medieval early-modern European history to understand this play?'
No, that's not the right question.
'Will I need to google "Thomas Cromwell" before watching it?'
Neither is that.
The week comes to a close, I curl up and chomp on the chewing gum of mindless television while the wasp of intrigue hovers deftly on my flatmate's tongue.
'Do I have to read the books? They're so long!'
Stop me if you've heard this one before
I change the channel and, like so many around the world who have come to the gripping conclusion of the critically-acclaimed series Breaking Bad, I grip my sofa cushions with all the fervour and grace of a carousel-bound walrus. I smile.
This story has been told before.
Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White and his rise and fall in the meth-amphetamine world of Albuquerque, New Mexico, shifting from his clumsy everyman upbringings to a dark world of betrayal, brutality and the mercurial dynamics of power. He is the antagonist. He becomes 'the danger'.
I will, of course, draw no comparisons, nor inflict the beast of the Breaking Bad diatribe on an already saturated internet. It is laughable to suggest the stories of Thomas Cromwell and Walter White are intimately linked in any other way than basic narrative structure.
Yet the wasp on my friend's tongue is buzzing louder than before, and I can't help wonder something that might bring this whole process to a head.
'How relevant is this show?'
In an entertainment world currently bombarded with what the critics are calling the 'television revolution', we have immediate access to good programs. Hollywood is vibrating with buzzwords like 'realism' and 'gritty reboot' and this year British theatre has ricocheted back in kind, bringing us, in turn, grittier productions and even realer reboots. Kirkwood's Chimerica. Lustgarden's Black Jesus.
Rehearsals for X Factor: The Musical start this month.
As relevant as a TV show?
Thomas Cromwell's backdoor politics, the wandering tongues of courtiers and commoners, the venomous promises and clandestine treaties - this is Britain in the age of its own gritty reboot.
Who's sleeping with Anne Boleyn? When are we going to war? What will one woman do to reach her top, and how far will one man go to stop her?
In rehearsal we wondered how historically accurate Hilary's books really were and she replied in a way only a deeply concerned author would: 'As true as possible. I didn't have to change much at all. Quite literally, you couldn't make this stuff up!'
The production, or the early glimpses of it we're beginning to see, will prove to be visually-engaging, darkly humorous and deeply and confusingly moving. I'm not sure I'm supposed to like this Thomas Cromwell.
Breaking Bad watches someone reach the top of the darkest of worlds. 'Walter White is not a bad man. He just makes bad decisions!' Thomas Cromwell, as audiences will come to see, is as far from us as our television sets.
The fire of British history is as scorching as it's always been. It's just taken Hilary Mantel and Mike Poulton to chip the tinder.
In words more eloquent than mine...
All Hail The King.
Image: The cast visited the Tower of London. Here they contemplate the crown.
by Joey Batey
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