4x4th Estate: Plays inspired by books

Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies  Hilary Mantel, RSC Adaptation


We feel like we’ve already spent many pleasurable hours in the company of the real-life, and really alive Thomas Cromwell and his compatriots and contemporaries, so successfully did Hilary Mantel transform dead, one-dimensional names from history books into characters that were remarkably three-dimensional and gloriously alive. This dream will actually come true this winter, when the Royal Shakespeare Company puts Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies on, in two parts, at Stratford, directed by Jeremy Herrin. What’s more, you can stage your own production at home; get Mike Poulton’s script, along with a substantial set of notes by Hilary on each of the principal characters, and don’t let anyone tell you “Oh, there isn’t really a head part so I think I’ll be Cromwell”.

The Waves  Virginia Woolf, Katie Mitchell adaptation


A text made up only of inner thoughts, shaped as a counterpoint to music, capturing subjective points of view and ‘moments of being’ in lyrical stream-of-consciousness monologues, doesn’t scream Saturday matinee on the London stage.  Nonetheless daring contemporary director, Katie Mitchell, brought The Waves to the National Theatre in 2006. The play used an overhead projector, most often seen in school science labs, to stunning effect; an actor plus a leafy twig suddenly gives us a child peering through a forest; introduce a bowl of water and you have a frightened child staring at a puddle. Mitchell deployed such theatrical and multimedia techniques with as much acumen as Woolf uses words, to create a play that was not only visually stunning, but powerful proof that no book cannot be adapted to the stage.



Cats, T.S. Eliot  Cats: The Musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation

In 1981, another radical – if slightly naffer – innovator, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, picked up the work of another dead Modernist, T.S. Eliot. Together with Trevor Nunn, Lloyd-Webber, transformed Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of poems Eliot had initially written in letters to his godchildren, into a West End musical.While Katie Mitchell’s play shares the obscurity and potential difficulty of Woolf’s text, Lloyd Webber brought Eliot right out into the limelight of global popularity, with Cats, the musical, being staged more than 6,000 times and translated into more than 20 languages. As a result, thousands of people have unwittingly been introduced to ‘The Four Quartets’, notoriously one of English literature’s most difficult poems, by a male singer with a remarkably high voice, resembling nothing more than an over-sized mop head


The Little White Bird  Peter Pan, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Uppeter

When Peter Pan first appeared on the London stage in J.M Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, he is almost naked (‘in so far as he is dressed at all it is in autumn leaves and cobwebs’), and in Wendy’s bedroom. She, understandably, asks where he comes from.“Second to the right and then straight on till morning”, is his pretty unhelpful reply. Since then, Peter has taken flight from his original literary origins as successfully as from his enigmatic postal address. In fact he is first glimpsed in Barrie’s 1902 adult novel, The Little White Bird. Peter is only seven days old, and, like all babies, used to be part-bird. His initial introduction is one lacking in fairy dust, instead tinged with darkness. Stranded in Kensington Gardens, the baby Peter is neglected by his mother, and spends his days making graves for the children who get dropped from their prams, or lost in the park after dark.


Words by Lettice Franklin.

“Letters have been intercepted.” (King Henry VIII, Wolf Hall) | “The King would prefer it if she withdrew from the world… Some godly house – well-governed – where her beliefs and faith will be a comfort to her.” (Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up The Bodies)

The RSC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in two parts this season in the Swan Theatre. Tickets are available here.

To purchase the limited edition double-hardback slipcased set of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, click here

For the latest news on the plays, follow Wolf Hall on Twitter: @WolfHallThePlay



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