An audience with Cromwell, how Hilary Mantel resurrected the forgotten underdog

By Hannah Silverman

“She’s in the audience most nights, you know?” the ticket salesman tells me at the Aldwych Theatre. “She comes in all the time and talks to everyone. She’s incredibly friendly.”

I’m collecting my tickets for a last minute purchase to ‘An audience with Hilary Mantel’ where the award-winning author of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies will discuss the ins and outs of her creative process. At that moment I didn’t expect her to walk through the front door.

Hilary Mantel

Hovering around the theatre moments later I watched as the two-time Booker Prize Winner inconspicuously walked through the grand entrance of the theatre, flanked by two companions, smiling as she chattered to staff en-route to the green room. The staff, it seemed, were in awe, while Mantel came off as any other social theatregoer.

It was at this moment that I realised the ticket salesman was right, and it wasn’t what I was expecting of someone who regularly headlines the British press. I almost thought there would be a literary equivalent of a backstage Mariah Carey check list where instead of demanding a bowl of hand-plucked blue-only M&Ms, she’d requested a mahogany bookcase filled with leather-bound classics and a 16th century quill (#novelistlyf) – or at least a secret stage door entrance and some dark sunglasses. But having never heard Mantel speak or seen her live before, I was simply intrigued first and foremost by her demeanour. And then it got better, she started talking about her books.

Mantel was at the Aldwych to talk about the success of the two titles in her Tudor trilogy as well as the transition from page to stage, a process which, to her credit, she has been heavily involved in. Her books, for those who don’t read or watch TV or get out of bed, centre on the life of Thomas Cromwell who as Henry VIII’s right hand man was instrumental in the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and, of course, the English Reformation. She sits well poised on stage patiently as she’s introduced and quizzed, then animatedly leans forward to speak to her audience proving she’s every bit the theatrical storyteller, too. There is a definitive change in her as she’s given her cue to talk about seeing her story come to life in Theatreland.

“If I said how often I was here they would think I was some sort of grim obsessive,” she smiles, adding she was in ‘Bodies’ the previous night.

“I’ve seen the production arrive at every stage and the wonderful thing is it can still surprise me.”

Mantel tells us she became so immersed in recreating Cromwell for a new audience that she jokes emailing cast members was like communicating with the characters she had recreated.

Extensive research supported her increasing fascination into both his monumental career progression and his widespread ‘bad guy’ personality. But what interested Mantel most was the theory that despite records to the contrary, this cruel mastermind just might have another side to him after all.

As we all know, retelling stories from the past isn’t easy, particularly when the leading characters are so well known among audiences either through pop fiction or otherwise. For Mantel, she candidly admits there are aspects of history we will never understand.

“I care passionately about accuracy, but unfortunately the evidence doesn’t always allow us to arrive there,” she says.

“However I believe that the truth is much for interesting than anything a novelist can create.”

During the Q&A Mantel is asked how a character as decisive as Anne Boleyn can be accurately portrayed by today’s storytellers.

Mantel answers: “I’m not interested in what the historians say or what i think bout Anne Boleyn, I’m only interested in how she might have looked to Cromwell.

“For me, when I write I see everything. I’m at the table with them. Cromwell is at one side of the table and I’m at the other; that means I register every blink.”

Mantel books

So what was it about Cromwell that caught Mantel’s eye? For all stereotypical purposes history has portrayed him as the king’s right hand man, a brute who would manipulate the pawns in the way of achieving their collective goals. But Putney born Cromwell suffered a childhood of physical abuse and his resilience saw him escape his tormented home life and wind up as a lawyer and eventually the Earl of Essex. For Mantel, as a writer, she became his “ventriloquist”.

“I tend to be on the side of the underdog and I tend to be on the side of the overlooked,” she explains.

“The names that have been forgotten have been given a voice and it is about telling retrospectively the telling out of justice and that is why I think we read and write history.”

So from the unassuming theatregoer to the award-winning novelist with a wealth of knowledge, insight and focus, it’s refreshingly clear Hilary is not in it only for the glory. She’s in it for the underdog and that’s why she brought up the bodies.

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