“Wolf Hall” Director Jeremy Herrin Holds Court

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Ben Miles (left) and Nathaniel Parker in Wolf Hall Photo by Alastair Muir

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Director Jeremy Herrin
Photo by Lesley Bruce
When I reviewed the Royal Shakespeare Company’s tandem Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies productions from London several months ago and summed them up as “magnificent,” I wrote that the two-part undertaking was “directed with a kind of genius for movement by Jeremy Herrin.”

So when the chance popped up to talk to him as he was rehearsing the virtually unchanged cast for the New York City invasion—only two who weren’t in it at its local opening—I seized it as quickly as Henry VIII seized the occasions to get rid of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, as quickly as Hilary Mantel picked up the pair of Man Booker Prizes she won in  2009 and 2012 for the acclaimed novels from which Mike Poulton’s stage adaptation were taken.

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We met in a south-of-the-Thames building, mid-block and chockablock with rehearsal rooms and ante-rooms where administrative people regularly busy themselves. We met only after several people connected with the immense undertaking—a couple of them actors who appeared to be refreshingly relaxed—alerted him to my arrival. (Among the production’s featured actors are Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII, Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Paul Jesson as Thomas Wolsey and Lydia Leonard as Anne Boleyn.)

When Herrin emerged — lanky and dressed in black and somewhat shambolic and looking slightly less relaxed the members of his troupe I’d encountered — we searched for an empty studio where we could sit and talk. Climbing at least one set of stairs, we located a space where we could sit at a convenient worktable and he could tuck into the lunch delivered to him by a cheerful assistant.

Asked about the origins of the plays billed in Manhattan as Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, Herrin — who’s nothing if not forthright, which may be a function of his knowing he’s involved with a rousing success — said, “I always like to do the different thing,” which explained his eagerness to take the venture on. Nonetheless, he also quickly admitted that this different thing tossed up quite a challenge. “How do you take a book with lots of people and not fuck it up?”

The very question indicated he was in on the project early. He was ready because, he said, “I’m used to working with writers on plays.” From the beginning, what he and Poulton believed necessary was “sticking to the spirit and not the letter” of Mantel’s lauded (and doorstop-thick) tomes. He noted that instead of thinking constantly of the novels as novels, he and Poulton “always treated [them] like plays.” Besides which, they always wanted it to resonate with, he stressed, “experts in Tudor history and people who don’t know ‘anything.'” Furthermore, he pointed out that Cromwell, having plugged for the first income tax, is “a modern character in an old tradition.”

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Ben Miles and Nathaniel Parker in Wolf Hall
Photo by Alastair Muir

Herrin also said that Mantel was caught up in the work: “She was there for a lot of rehearsals.” She was on hand to such an extent that she has stated their collaborative work will “Inform” The Mirror and the Light, the imminent third novel in the Henry VIII-Thomas Cromwell trilogy. (Will it cop a third Man Booker Prize? Only time will tell.) It does seem as if Mantel’s watching characters from the printed page become three-dimensional has inspired hers to incorporate what’s she’s witnessed in her writing. Of his joining forces with her, he also commented, “Before I met Hilary, it never occurred to me that [the novels] would make a great show.”

“No changes” is the succinct answer Herrin gave when asked if the plays, grounded as they are in 16th century English history, had to be adjusted in any way for American audiences. The only significant change is that between the Aldwych, where the play settled when it moved to London from Stratford-upon-Avon, and New York’s more spacious Winter Garden. “I need to feel what the theater is like,” Herrin said about his initial visit, where he’ll be making his directing debut. To accomplish that, he’s already journeyed to town with designer Christopher Oram, where the two of them decided “to build the set out into the auditorium.”

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And if his acting company is virtually intact, are they merely rehearsing what they already know from having performed so many times in the healthy London run. “There’s always another way to explore and experiment,” Herrin said. More than that, Herrin holds the opinion that there’s no such thing as sufficient rehearsal. “It’s never enough,” he claimed. “There’s no such thing as enough.” He did concede, “There’s nothing like a hit to bring things together.”

I told Herrin that besides admiring his Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies directorial achievements, I also think very highly of two other productions he helmed recently—James Graham’s This House at the National Theatre and the revival of Julian Mitchell’s Another Country at Trafalgar Studios. (The former is about how the British Parliament is really run by its whips; the latter takes place at an English private school and includes characters inspired by eventual Russian spies Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt.)

He appreciated the compliment but evidenced more enthusiasm about Headlong, a production outfit where he’s the artistic director and through which he expects to do almost all, if not all, of his future work. Running Headlong, he said, “I’m liberated to be imaginative.” Next up for him is Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things, which is a co-production with National Theatre and will bow at the building’s recently renovated Dorfman in August under the auspices of Rufus Norris and Tessa Ross. He clearly takes pleasure at being included in the new co-artistic directors’ inaugural season.

He also confided, “I need great people around me.” By that he means with Headlong he expects to offer the kinds of opportunities he received when he was starting out. “I want to encourage new directors. I want to spot talent and encourage it.”

But for now it’s Wolf Hall Parts One & Two, about which he’d like to say more, but his break is over and he’s eager to return for exploring and experimenting.

(FYI: Wolf Hall Parts One & Two is a different project from the six-part Wolf Hall TV series, adapted from Mantel’s novels and starring Mark Rylance and Damien Lewis, that has just debuted on PBS.)