Theater Talk: “Wolf Hall”

>>The biggest part of our company, really, has been this emerging force of Hilary, because she wasn’t — She was there at the beginning but she’s now there every day and helping us with rewrites and spotting things all the time. It’s as though she’s on stage with us.>>I usually hang out with a crowd of dead people. [Laughter]>>HASKINS: “Theater Talk” is made possible in part by…>>♪♪>>From New York City, this is “Theater Talk.” I’m Susan Haskins.>>And I’m Michael Riedel of The New York Post.>>”Wolf Hall” is the name of Dame Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel on the life and career of Thomas Cromwell, the ambitious secretary of Henry VIII. It is now also two gripping plays at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. We are pleased to be joined by the actors Ben Miles, who plays Thomas Cromwell.>>RIEDEL: Boo! The villain.>>Off with your head.>>RIEDEL: Hiss!>>HASKINS: And Nathaniel Parker, who plays the highly maladjusted Henry VIII.>>Mally high adjusted, I think.>>We also welcome the production’s director, Jeremy Herrin, and…>>And the woman who began it all. Hilary Mantel, who is the author, of course, of this runaway best-seller book, “Wolf Hall,” winner of the Man Booker Prize, one of the great reads of all time.>>HASKINS: Because “Wolf Hall,” two evenings are both “Wolf Hall,” and “Bring Up the Bodies.”>>And you’re at work on the third, right?>>I am.>>And how is that going?>>It’s… going with great energy, speed. I’m more fascinated by the project, the whole subject, than when I began. And the production is actually a great help. It’s unique, because normally when there’s an adaptation, the primary work’s finished. The book’s closed. In this case, the book’s still in progress. It is in some ways feeding what happens in the shows, the shows are feeding what happens in the book. It’s a marvelous way to work, and I think quite unique.>>Did you have any sense when you — ’cause I know you’d written several novels before this — did you have any sense it could be a play, or did you ever have any desire to write a play or to be in the theater?>>I’ve written radio drama. And I love the theater. But the opportunity had never come along. But I do see everything as I write, I hear everything as I write. So, in my imagination, it’s not a big jump. Technically, of course, bringing the project to the stage is quite a difficult thing to do. It’s highly complex. Something like 159 characters in the books.>>Yes. A little cutting had to be done there, Jeremy, for the stage play.>>Yeah.>>HILARY: 22 hardworking actors. And some wigs.>>HASKINS: You’re working with the adapter…>>HILARY: That’s right.>>Mike Poulton.>>RIEDEL: So how did this project come together? Was this something that you were interested in in the beginning?>>I read the book when it first came out, and loved it, and read it sort of obsessively. And didn’t for one second think that it would ever exist on stage, and never thought about that in any way. But when I got the call from Playful, Matt Byam Shaw, the producer, to say that Mike and Hilary had been working on adaptations and would I be interested in talking about it, it just struck me as the most perfect idea, partly because it was so challenging and intimidating. As Hilary said, there’s so many characters and there’s such a sort of interiority in Cromwell’s — You know, the books are written from his point of view, so it felt like that was our first big moment, was to work out how to translate the specificity of his world onto the stage, without doing it from behind his eyes. So that was the challenge, really. And I suppose, like lots of good projects, the ones that seem impossible are often the ones that are most enjoyable.>>We should say that, here in New York, the buzz about this production is akin to the excitement generated by “Nicholas Nickleby” many years ago, that the RSC did in 1980 or ’81. They introduced Trevor Nunn to us all, and that was a two-part, eight-hour extravaganza, too, that, much like “Wolf Hall,” captures the public’s fancy and is selling extremely well.>>And it’s thrilling. I was at the first preview, and it is thrilling.>>Now, Nathaniel Parker plays Henry VIII. When he comes in for auditions, is it just that voice, you say, “That’s it”?>>I wish things were that easy.>>It was the ax that really sold us.>>The train of wives.>>Yes, the train of wives, the harem that I brought with me.>>What did you audition with to audition for Henry VIII? What was your piece?>>Uh…>>Nat is beyond that stage of having to do a piece.>>Oh, offer only?>>Well, he did come in and meet for it, and he was utterly impressive.>>I did a rather naughty thing, to be honest, which was that — And I wasn’t in a great mood that day. But I’d read it and, having said no to it a couple times — ’cause I was doing “The Audience” in London at the time — with Matt Byam Shaw again, Playful being the producers — and I just didn’t want to do any more theater. It takes you out of home so much, and so I said no, and they came back and said, “Please.” No, no money in it, really. And then they gave me the script and I went, “Oh, okay. I’ll have a look. I’ll meet with Jeremy, then.” And I met with Jeremy, and he said after it, “Can we just read the scene?” And I went, “No, I don’t want to read the scene.” That’s the kind of mood I was in. And he turned to the cast and he said, “I thought we’d agreed he would read the scene.” I said, “All right, I’ll read a scene,” and I’d learnt it.>>RIEDEL: Ah!>>It was a bit naughty.>>RIEDEL: Did you know this?>>No, I just thought, “Oh, God, what an idiot.” [Laughter] I didn’t actually think that. I thought much worse. I won’t say that, but what was brilliant is, it seems to kind of sum up — I think Nat was really clever because he just came in. He’d obviously committed to the project. And it’s a difficult thing for an actor when you go and you have to read and you get judged on something that is the start of a kind of creative journey. But what was amazing was that he just pulled the rug out from under us, and it was a kind of pitch-perfect production.>>But I still came away, actually, thinking there’s still a slight doubt in my mind, and I was working with Penelope Wilton at the time on the radio, and she said, “Oh, I hear you’re working with Jeremy.” I don’t know how she’d heard so quickly. Maybe you’d spoken to her. But I said, “Hmm…” “No, no, you must. He’s the best director around.” And he is. I know he’s here right now, and I’m hoping he doesn’t give me notes on last night’s show in front of the whole audience, but he is the best I’ve ever worked with.>>How brilliant of you to be Henry VIII at your audition. Now, did you act like — did you act like the divisive, the sneaky Thomas Cromwell at your audition?>>I didn’t get an audition. I got a phone call in my car out of the blue saying they wanted me to play Thomas Cromwell at the RSC in “Wolf Hall,” and, uh… I sort of dropped the phone and picked it up again and said, “Really? Are you serious?” And they said, “Yeah.” So it was an entirely different process for me. And then Jeremy and I met and we had dinner at the Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London. We talked about the project. We talked about approaches to work and styles of theater, stuff we liked and stuff we didn’t. And that was it, really. It was kind of sealed over a bottle of wine and a steak, which is my kind of audition, really. I’m going to insist on doing that from now on.>>Did you have casting approval, though, Hilary? Did you sit in when they ran these names by you and…?>>No, no, I didn’t. I wasn’t really so involved with the project at that stage. I was very much at arm’s length. I was working away with Mike Poulton, the adapter, but very much in the back room at that stage.>>It’s incredible the amount of work that you do. I wanted to ask you, would you give a thumbnail of the personality of Thomas Cromwell, the central character? For those who don’t know this, could you describe this man historically?>>Thomas Cromwell was a blacksmith’s son. He rose to be the king’s right-hand man, his chief minister, a reshaper of the nation. Stayed at the top for almost 10 years, which was quite a feat in Henry’s time. My question was, how did he do it? Uh… How do you — in those times, when society was very rigid — rise through the ranks so rapidly and with such impact? He was extremely clever. He was cool. He kept his nerve. He was a “big picture” man, which made him audacious, a visionary.>>And it’s interesting, you start the book by telling us that he’s an abused child. That’s not so much in the plays but that the blacksmith is beating him up all the time, and so he has this background.>>His father, yes.>>HASKINS: You factored that in, right?>>I did, yeah. I remember very early on talking in sort of script conversations we had, I was… I was quite sort of insistent that that scene was in, that somehow we got to show the audience that. You know, we had ideas of like getting a young 7-year-old kid in and…>>HASKINS: Beating him up, right?>>But having that scene happen at the top of the show, but… dramatizing your books was a process of kind of elimination of…>>HASKINS: They’re so rich.>>Of what has — You know, we can’t have the whole story in the plays, but funny enough, we kind of have got the whole story in the plays.>>You don’t need it in the play.>>We allude to so many other things that aren’t in the play.>>It seemed to be the biggest discussion in the press in England before we opened, was can this possibly be done? Nobody can.>>What, you mean a skeptical British press? Never heard of that before.>>And we hit them between the eyes, from the word “go,” actually. I remember sitting at the table reading, when I hadn’t met any of the cast before, didn’t know any of them, and… I just thought, this is a hit. We don’t need to worry about West End. This is where we need to focus, is Broadway.>>RIEDEL: Really?>>HERRIN: I’ve never had that feeling.>>I wasn’t thinking that. I was thinking, “How do we get the running time down?” From five hours to 2 1/2.>>You always said New York would like Thomas Cromwell.>>Yeah, I had this idea early on that, if this town existed, he would have come over here. He would have been mayor in a month, as well.>>It feels very contemporary. That’s why I suppose this story’s been reinterpreted over the years so successfully is that, in one way or another, it ends up talking to the culture. I think Hilary’s genius has been to locate in Thomas a character that really speaks about where we are, culturally. He’s antiheroic in the most engaging and exciting way, and he’s kind of unknowable, which is brilliant for two shows. Because the audience constantly, on the back foot, on the front foot, they think they’ve got him, he slips out of their grasp. He’s always moving and always changing, and he’s terrifying, but he’s utterly charming as well, so there’s a sort of guilty pleasure in there as well.>>He’s a sort of Tudor Tony Soprano, if you will.>>I mean, actually, rather than any of the historical examples, that “The Sopranos” and “Godfather” and “House of Cards,” things like that were the kind of great influences for us in terms of how do we make this character alive, how do we see him as a real person and not some kind of dusty, historical artifact?>>Well, that’s the genius of the book. I was going to ask you about Henry VIII. I mean, Henry VIII, we all have the image. You know, the pictures. Charles Laughton.>>HASKINS: And how much does your costume weigh?>>PARKER: Well, it varies. I’ve got quite a few different costumes, but by the end of it, my last one, which I have to race into in a matter of seconds, is about 40 pounds. And so I’m going in and out of these things. There’s a very light one, which is easy to wear, a nightgown, but otherwise I’m in and out of armor and various costumes, and it’s such fun. It doesn’t give you a chance to breathe, really. And he is a very different Henry, you’re right. Normally, that Laughton stuff of the chicken bone-sucking, thigh-slapping, wench-grabbing Henry isn’t here. And one of –>>That’s off-stage.>>That’s off-stage, yeah. Thank you, I was hoping you would. But one of Hilary’s genius moments in this, I think, is that, I remember on our second night in Stratford, a friend of mine brought his 13-year-old son, and I said to him afterwards in the dressing room, “Did you understand it?”, slightly nervous about his reaction. And he said, “Oh, absolutely, it’s not Shakespeare.” And that is, for the dusty old historical thing, if anybody’s out there thinking, “Oh, God, I’m not going to have to sit through rhyming couplets all evening,” no, you don’t. It’s absolutely — It’s not completely updated, modern, and with Henry, I won’t say “didn’t,” I’ll say “did not.” There’s a certain amount of things which I will almost always try and lift. But it’s absolutely vibrant, and as open as it possibly can be for today’s audience. And Henry’s just great. Everybody has a picture of Henry anyway. And they’ve all got this idea of him being — but I’m not playing that guy. I’m playing Hilary’s version of Cromwell’s version of Henry. So when Henry turns to him and says, “Tell me what to do, Thomas,” it could actually have been just him going, “So, Thomas what are we going to do?” But it’s Cromwell’s version — This is what he said to me — He said, “Tell me what to do!” You know, and it’s through Hilary, so I’m having a ball not playing the one that we all know.>>You defeat the audience’s expectations the moment you walk on and open your mouth, that’s the thing. And that is… you know, that surprise for the audience… gives them some work to do. It pulls them into the play. We’re not telling them something they already know. We’re asking them to use their imaginations and…>>RIEDEL: And you’re going to meet these people for the first time, in a way, not the image you have of them from the history books.>>Exactly.>>That’s the great thing that this story’s done, these books have done, that Hilary’s done, is sort of redefined these icons that we’ve had in our consciousness. You know, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. You’ve sort reminted them for a whole new generation of people, of readers and theatergoers, and it’s now you… This period is fascinating for the English, and I think for people abroad as well. It’s a very important stage in the history of England, the history of Europe, and the history of the world, and for you to kind of — and for us to shed new light on these figures that we think we know, is very thrilling, very exciting, particularly for Thomas Cromwell, which is a character that not many people have heard of.>>RIEDEL: We’ll know him from “The Man For All Seasons,” where he really is the villain and Thomas More is Paul Scofield, who’s totally pure and innocent. And, of course, you flip the perspectives on these.>>Well, you know, in “A Man For All Seasons,” Thomas More is a 1960s liberal. [Laughter]>>Yes, exactly.>>The world just moved on a bit. You know, he was a politician. It’s hard to be a politician and a saint. And I question the saint.>>You got rid of the saint part. Were you an historian by training at all?>>No, I’m not.>>So where does this come from? You’ve written other novels, then all of the sudden, you decide, “I know a lot of this and I’m going to put it in,” or did you have to spend years doing the research?>>Well, I have written a number of historical novels as well as contemporary novels. I love research. I don’t think of it as a phase you go through — there’s the research, then there’s the writing. Research is creative. Until you sit down to write a scene, you don’t know what you need to know. So the process of research is continuous. What you’re looking for is the tiny detail that lights up a page. Or the word that lights up a character. And most of what you know is kept below the waterline. It’s only the tip of the iceberg.>>Did you have access to a lot of materials and documents that most people can’t get to see because they’re so rare and valuable? Do have a special key to the British Museum — the Hilary Mantel Room, where you get to look at boxes of things that no one else gets to look at?>>No, what I’ve got is the documents that are available to everybody. And that many of them you can see online. But, I think the trick is, to broaden out your research. You have to drill down into it like a historian would, but also you have to think about music, art, literature, what pictures would they have looked at, what books would they have read? That builds the world picture. So, you come at it very narrowly and then you broaden the scope out. And it’s a question of, finding out where the facts run out. Then, on the basis of the facts you have, your best evidence that you can get, then you can start to imagine.>>That’s where the novelist comes in.>>Exactly, yes. That’s where you go to work, when the historian stops.>>RIEDEL: Interesting.>>You recommend the book, in many of your interviews, about Wolsey.>>Yes.>>HASKINS: Which is readily available.>>HILARY: The magnificent, flamboyant Cardinal Wolsey, most powerful man in England before Thomas Cromwell came along, was the king’s adviser. Uh, Wolsey had a gentleman servant called George Cavendish, who was with him, some of the big events of his life, and at his deathbed. George wrote a memoir. He wrote it all down. And it’s marvelous. It’s the first biography in English. This book teaches you to talk Tudor. I owe everything to George Cavendish.>>Good thing that book’s not copyrighted anymore, Hilary. [Laughter] It’s in the public domain.>>He wrote it like a novel, you see, because there was no template for doing this. So he will do a scene for you, and then he’ll say, “Now, let’s leave that and let’s see how Thomas Cromwell has sped since we last met him.”>>RIEDEL: I’ve got to read this book. What’s it called?>>It’s called “The Life of Cardinal Wolsey,” the Late Cardinal Wolsey.>>Now, Jeremy, as the director, do you do this kind of research that Hilary does?>>What’s the point? We’ve got the fount of all wisdom. I used to joke in Stratford that Hilary could spot an inappropriate prop at a hundred yards. She’d just go, “No, they wouldn’t have that.” So it’s a fantastic resource to have for the production.>>The biggest part of our company, really, has been this emerging force of Hilary, because she wasn’t — She was there at the beginning, but she’s now there every day. And helping us with rewrites and spotting things all the time. It’s as though she’s on stage with us.>>I usually hang out with a crowd of dead people. [Laughter]>>We’re not there yet, surely.>>Give us some time, give us some time.>>Wait till that matinee audience on Sunday.>>How did you research your role?>>I read Hilary’s books.>>HASKINS: That’s all you needed.>>That’s perfect character studies for an actor. I need go nowhere else, really. They were fantastic source material, still are. I’m still reading them. Still talking to Hilary about it. Still e-mailing Hilary about it. Still trying to figure out why he does what he does. You know, these are perfect books in terms of character analysis, they really are.>>But the questions Ben has asked me throughout the process have been feeding the third book, because I have to come up with answers. And some of those answers… You know, there may be scenes in the third book that I wouldn’t have done if Ben hadn’t prompted them with a question or an image.>>Can you give us an example of something that he’s brought up that got you thinking of Cromwell in a different way?>>Cromwell ran away from home at the age of 15. After, as I describe it in my book, a very violent incident with his father, who was a drunk and a bully. We know this much about him. Why? What happened the night before the book starts? I never… I’d asked myself that question. I hadn’t come up with any answers. Ben said to me that he, in a certain scene in the play, he kept getting an image of being under a bridge. And I said, “No, you’re not under a bridge, you’re in a cellar. That arch you’re looking at — You’re in an undercroft. It’s the vaulting above your head.” Somehow, I thought, I know that instantly. And I built the scene from there. So now we know what happens the night before the first book starts. It will work around and come and there’s a flashback in the third book.>>I asked Hilary very early on, the play starts, Cromwell returning from an assignment in Yorkshire, in the north of England, that Wolsey sent him on to try and get as much money as he can from the monasteries. And I remember very early on in Stratford in rehearsals asking Hilary, e-malling Hilary and saying, “What do you think Cromwell might be thinking about on his journey down from Yorkshire to London, this sort of two-week ride? Any thoughts?” And back comes a kind of four-page e-mail, which was like a chapter from the book, telling me the number of horses he would have had to use, the weather on the way, the condition of the roads, the state of the English church, who he might be writing to. And I’m reading this with my jaw on the floor, and from that first question has come this fantastic sort of correspondence, which has just given me so much.>>Do you have Henry VIII questions?>>Well, we started with a little printout for each of us of our characters.>>Yes, they were great.>>Which I’ve never had before. I’ve been around for a long time now, and I’ve never had that, and it was so helpful. I’m a slightly different kind of actor. I approach it in a different way, which is, I’ve got a script, and if I transgress too far out of it, I try to put too much information in and then I implode mentally, so I’m trying to do what’s on the page and figure out how to say what’s on the page and why it’s there. I had a father who always used to say to me, I remember doing “Vanity Fair” — “For God’s sake, read the book, read the book, read the book,” and I read half way through and there’s just too much here. I’ve got to come back and just do what the script says and make it work within that environment. And that I really enjoy. That’s my challenge. Obviously, I’ve read the books and adore the books, but if I kept going back to them, I’d be going to Hilary, “Look, I really want that bit back in there, okay?”>>That is the danger, and in rehearsal we had a moratorium. I would see a copy of the novel, and I’d go, “What’s going on?” Because there’d be someone who’s playing somebody just going, “Actually, there’s this great bit…”>>It is full of great bits and you really do have to — I remember doing “Hamlet” all those moons ago with Zeffirelli — Laertes has an 80-line speech when he basically says to Ophelia, “Don’t touch him with a barge pole when I go off to university, he’s crackers.” Shakespeare put it better. And it was reduced to two lines. And I got — uggh! — You know what, I can’t fight that. He’s not going to give me an 80-line speech. If he shot it, he’d just edit it or not turn the camera on. So you’ve got to do what’s on the page. And I think that’s really important for something which is so full, for this. I do Hilary’s version of Cromwell’s version of Henry.>>’Cause it was always really important for us. I mean, the novels are the novels, and if anyone out there hasn’t yet read them, they should read them because they’re a fantastic and magnificent achievement and a wonderful experience. But our approach is different. We’re making these stories — we’re animating them for the stage. So it’s a different experience.>>And you can’t presume that everyone in the audience is going to have read the books, and it’s got to be a theatrical experience, not just the novel on the stage.>>And it’s really important, and as the director, it’s always my job just to try and put myself in a state of innocence, almost, when I’m watching it, and work out, okay, if I was coming to this for the first time with no information at all, what would I be picking up? Just to make sure that, as far as our audience is concerned, they don’t need any prior knowledge, they didn’t need to have read the novels, they don’t need to know anything about the history. It’s all in there, presented in a really dramatic and exciting way. So that’s our kind of — It’s almost that there have been two ambitions with it. On the one hand, to satisfy someone who doesn’t know anything about it, and on the other hand, to be so accurate and deft with it that it satisfies Hilary and her researcher/historian friends and make sure that they don’t have a problem with it as well. And if we can keep those two things in balance, then it’s a great achievement.>>You could actually see part two without seeing part one and still have a blast. In England, when they were called “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” I had a lot of mates who couldn’t get to see “Wolf Hall,” so they came to “Bring Up Bodies,” and they loved it, and it wasn’t out of place at all.>>Yeah, it’s like the great old Ian Richardson “House of Cards,” the three installments of “House of Cards,” where you can watch them independently. The one where he kills –>>He did what?>>He dethrones the king.>>Thanks, jeez!>>Well, we’ve seen that you’ve succeeded, since the woman who wrote the book, Hilary Mantel, approves of the stage adaptation, of these clowns running around with your wonderful characters. All right, “Wolf Hall” at the Winter Garden. It is adapted from Hilary Mantel’s best-selling book, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.”>>HASKINS: “Bring Up the Bodies,” and we cannot wait for the third novel, and I hope it’s a play, too.>>RIEDEL: Jeremy Herrin, the director. Nathaniel Parker, Henry VIII. Ben Miles, the misunderstood, perhaps, somewhat, Thomas Cromwell.>>Thank you.>>No, I think we understand him fine.>>And Hilary Mantel, thank you all for being our guests tonight on “Theater Talk.”>>Thank you. >>Our thanks to the friends of “Theater Talk” for their significant contribution to this production. …plus public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; and the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.>>We welcome your questions or comments for “Theater Talk.” Thank you, and good night.

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