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Hilary Mantel is a huge loss to the stage, as well as the page

The author had spoken of her love of playwriting

Hilary Mantel in rehearsals for The Mirror and the Light
(© Helen Maybanks)

The death of Dame Hilary Mantel last week was a huge loss to literature, as has been rightly pointed out in the many obituaries over the weekend. But her loss to theatre, though less well heralded, is nevertheless also strongly felt.

Mantel indicated in interviews last year, when her co-adaptation of The Mirror and the Light premiered in the West End, that she intended to focus on playwriting in the future. Speaking to the Guardian’s Mark Lawson, she said: “The thing is, I now know that I should have been doing this all my life… The novel is a good form for someone who only has pencil and paper. But theatre is where I should have been, I think.”

Those may have been the words of someone understandably exhausted after the completion of such an epic prose trilogy, but they indicated her clear love of the artform and gave a tantalising glimpse of the playwright she may have become.

As the grandson of an author, Eva Ibbotson, who wrote some of her most acclaimed works in her 70s and 80s, I know first hand how long an author’s career can be. There are countless other examples of the longevity of the writing life – Frank McCourt, Margaret Atwood and Caryl Churchill being just a few – so the fact Mantel has left us at the age of 70 means we mourn for the work she could have produced, as well as that she did. 

At least the literary world got to witness her magnus opus, with the completion of the Wolf Hall trilogy in 2020. The theatre world can only wonder what may have been. As she poignantly told WhatsOnStage’s managing editor Alex Wood last year, “There are no endings, just beginnings. And this is one."

The cast of The Mirror and the Light
(© Marc Brenner)

Although I never got the chance to interview her – something I now hugely regret – I did speak to her co-adaptor of The Mirror and the Light, Ben Miles (who also played Cromwell on stage), and it was clear how highly he valued her as a theatrical collaborator. She had shared extracts of the book with him throughout her writing of it and, as he said, “My response was invariably ‘it’s brilliant’ – I mean, what else is there to say about her work?”

Mantel is far from the first writer to discover the joy of plays after finding literary fame. Another who springs to mind is Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, whose debut play Polar Bears, about bipolar disorder, premiered at the Donmar in 2010. He also spoke at the time of his preference for writing plays over novels. Looking further back, Agatha Christie may be the bestselling novelist ever, but she also discovered theatrical success after writing Black Coffee in 1930. She went on of course to create the longest-running play in history, The Mousetrap.

I have no doubt that a talent as formidable as Mantel’s would have gone on to be a great boon to theatre. Can you imagine the excitement a new commission by her at the National or RSC (who adapted Wolf Hall) would have caused? But sadly now that is all we can do – imagine – and be thankful that she at least got to experience some of the pleasure of playwriting before she passed.

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