Nathaniel Parker on playing Henry VIII and working with Hilary Mantel on 'The Mirror and the Light'
Nathaniel Parker could well classify as the British theatre’s leading history boy – or shall we say man. He played the onetime prime minister Gordon Brown on the West End in The Audience; was the former speaker of the House of Commons, Jack Weatherill, in James Graham’s This House; and has spent the better part of a decade living on and off with the character of Henry VIII in the various stage versions of Hilary Mantel’s trio of novels about Thomas Cromwell and Tudor England: Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and the latest, opening at the Gielgud Theatre this week, The Mirror and the Light.
Away from the stage, he has recently formed part of the ensemble of Ridley Scott’s historical (yes!) film saga The Last Duel, alongside Matt Damon and Adam Driver, and doubled as both producer and actor on a TV thriller series entitled The Beast Must Die, adapted from a novel by Cecil Day-Lewis, father of Daniel.
So there was plenty to talk about when we spoke via video one recent lunchtime about keeping going during the pandemic and the synergy of Henry VIII being on the West End at the same time as his numerous wives in the musical Six.
Here you are once again donning period regalia to play Henry VIII, the same part that brought you an Olivier Award followed by a Tony nomination, both in 2015. Does that amplify the sense of expectation this time around?
I can’t tell other people’s expectations, but I’m really trying not to think about it. As you say, I won stuff and got nominated for stuff and it was the most exciting time of my career in that respect, but there’s a stamp of reality that comes with this – a big boot that this is a separate thing. Everybody who came to see the first two shows loved them, and the hope is that we’re continuing with that, which does put a bit of weight on one’s shoulders.
I would imagine literally so, given designer Christopher Oram’s costumes.
My God yes, in fact I’m going to a physio this afternoon. I must have 20 to 30 pounds worth of costumes, so you’ve got to have quite strong shoulders! [Laughs] What’s tangible is that I’m wearing those costumes out there and we’re doing it and this is an exciting new play: it’s Hilary [Mantel’s] first play and also [leading man] Ben [Miles’s] first play, and when Hilary’s in the room, it’s a bit like having Oscar Wilde in attendance. The depth of knowledge she has, and the expansive understanding of the period and the people, are a joy to witness.
It’s such a shame that the West End production of Six, the musical about Henry VIII’s many wives, has moved from Shaftesbury Avenue, just along the road from you, to a venue further away: think how great it would be to leave one auditorium and experience the same material from an entirely different angle in the other!
[Laughs] In fact, I wanted to go and do a little cameo performance in Six! I haven’t actually seen [the musical], but my daughter introduced me to the music so I’ve heard it. But I’m lucky here to be playing a different Henry from what we all know. Often, the assumption is of a thigh-slapping, wench-grabbing Henry, but our play, I think, shows his vulnerability in a way that’s never been allowed to be seen before. There are moments of extreme public fury and joy and decisiveness but then there’s immense sorrow and humanity, as well. It’s great fun to play.
One thinks by way of comparison of Shakespeare in terms of previous multi-part stage chronicles of history: the Henry plays for instance, or Richards II and III.
Very much so, but what’s interesting is that whereas those plays, or some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, manage to find distilled moments of comedy, our play is funny throughout: there’s a laugh in the very last scene. The challenge here is that people know what’s going to happen so that card is dealt, but how we get the audience there and keep them thrilled is due to danger but also humour too – two things Hilary’s books have in spades.
Do you sometimes just yearn to don a pair of jeans and do some funky contemporary new play at the Royal Court?
I actually was reflecting just last night about why I’ve done so much of this history stuff. I didn’t quite think blue jeans at the Court, but I did do one modern play in the West End, 50 Revolutions [about London drug culture back in 1999], but then I didn’t do any theatre for a long time because I got stage fright and stepped back. It may just be that I have a period face, and my period would seem to be historical dramas or wartime.
Were you ever worried this play might not get to happen, at least not now, due to your leading man’s previous affiliation with The Lehman Trilogy, which is on Broadway at this very moment?
Yes, and I actually had a drink with Ben six weeks or so before rehearsals and he told me about being on Broadway with Lehman in March 2020 and doing three or four previews and then everything was pulled. When theatre came back, they asked if he still wanted to do [Lehman], and he said, ‘"I can’t; I’m committed to The Mirror and the Light just now."
I asked him if he missed it and if he would rather be in New York and he said, "God, no." I mean, Cromwell is an amazing part and Ben is filling it even more substantially this time.
How has it been putting a play of this size together at the moment when live performance seems so precarious due to Covid-19?
We’ve all been double vaxxed and are not allowed into the building without a test, and there’s a Covid person who’s there every day who has actually become part of our psyche. But it’s really wearing on one’s own psyche to take a test every day where you think "please God, don’t be positive" – it’s quite exhausting to think what that would do to the show.
Do you feel, after all this time as Henry, that he will forever be a part of you?
Always, I have to say. It’s been absolutely wonderful to be able to work with Hilary and Jeremy; I’ll never forget it.