LONDON (Reuters) - Five centuries after he ruled the roost in Tudor England, Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell is playing to packed houses in London in two plays based on the best-selling novels of Hilary Mantel.
It is further evidence of how her double Man Booker prize-winning books “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, which have sold more than 3 million copies worldwide, resonate for modern audiences with their mix of political and sexual intrigue.
The story of the matching and despatching of the king’s wives - and the resulting political earthquake as Henry breaks with Rome to create a new Church of England - speaks across the ages, according to Mantel.
“This is our national soap opera,” she said in an interview. “Henry is a monster king - a Bluebeard - with his wives and their various fates. No-one else has a king who marries six wives and executes two of them. It is one of our national glories, you know.”
The combined six-hour drama has just transferred to London’s West End after a sell-out run in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production had its press night on Saturday, winning more rave reviews.
There is also a BBC television version of the books in the works, to be broadcast next year, with Mark Rylance as Cromwell and “Homeland” star Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.
They now have their work cut out to better the RSC show, which is played out on a stark set dominated by a giant cross that underscores the religious backdrop of the plotting and love matches going on the foreground.
The freshness of Mantel’s approach comes from telling the well-worn tale of Henry VIII through the lens of Cromwell, a brilliant and multilingual politician, lawyer, businessman and one-time mercenary.
Cromwell rises from humble origins as a blacksmith’s boy to become richer, more powerful and more dangerous as the years advance, after securing Henry his wished-for divorce from Katherine of Aragon and overseeing the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn.
He is played on stage by Ben Miles, who makes him at once charming and frightening - a truly morally ambiguous character in the murky world of the Tudor court.
Miles describes him as “the original working-class hero”. But he is also “a man on the make”, according to Mantel, who said she had gained a deeper understanding of Cromwell from talking to Miles as he got inside the character’s head.
That is a big bonus for Mantel, who is still working on the third book in her trilogy “The Mirror and the Light” - a project she says remains a work in progress.
However, the fact that the final book is not yet written has not stopped her and stage adapter Mike Poulton from thinking about the next theatrical incarnation of Cromwell and the best way to hone down the last section of the saga for the stage.
“The book will be finished when the book is finished, and then we will think about a play - but we have written the first scene,” said Poulton.
Editing by Andrew Heavens