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The weight of the role
Royal Shakespear Company blog
Published, March 11 2014

We start by talking of the success of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies in which Nathaniel plays Henry VIII. He has just come from a physio session apparently he needs an MOT every so often as the weight of the Tudor costumes, some up to 40 pounds, can take its toll on the body. So, with its period costume, authentic props, choreography, fluid staging conditions and characters conceived in a similar way, how similar is it to acting in a play by Shakespeare?

Nathaniel says that the popularity of these two plays derives from the fact that they are not Shakespeare. It's partly a question of language, the audience finds it much easier and after the initial reverential hush they realise that they can laugh. And with a Shakespeare play, the audience knows what to expect, comes with preconceptions, often knows more about the play than you, the actor. But with these new plays, the audience largely Hilary Mantel fans knows the novels but not how they will transfer to the stage. Part of the creative process that has been the experience of working on the plays has been the privilege of having Hilary with them to guide and suggest ideas.

Nathaniel on his own pathway to Shakespeare

Nathaniel loves Shakespeare but is not afraid to acknowledge that there can be difficulties for some people and is very open as to how Shakespeare is presented and attracts audiences. At the age of nine, he knew that he wanted to be an actor and it was after seeing his siblings in Shakespearean roles: his brother Alan as the Bloody Captain in Macbeth and his sister Lucy playing Lady Macbeth while at Cambridge. It occurred to him that if he acted then he could have a fistful of roles in life!

He attended the National Youth Theatre for four years learning the craft before training at LAMDA. For years he had either seen performances or been involved in various student productions of Shakespeare. He had been absorbed by the texts, reading them privately from the time he had been at boarding school and he found himself at age 24 serving an apprenticeship with Terry Hands. He played Florizel in The Winter's Tale and by the time he joined the Peter Hall Company he reckons he had acted in about 15 Shakespeare plays. He was cast as Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Dustin Hoffman was playing Shylock and this was his first Shakespeare. Nathaniel says what a talented actor he was, full of ideas for the role but unsure of how to handle the iambic pentameter that Hall was so keen for them all to observe. Nathaniel was not exactly at ease with its subtleties himself so he and Dustin would meet up, exchange roles and listen to each other's versions as they strolled the gardens of London. Too stringent an application of the rules of verse-speaking can be inhibiting he feels.

Shakespeare through the lens

Film he finds liberating and in some ways advantageous to Shakespeare. Most people will readily acknowledge enjoying Shakespeare on film when they were young and this universal experience takes us from the Olivier films of Henry V and Hamlet in the '40s, Richard III of the '50s and Marlon Brando's Julius Caesar, Franco Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet of the '60s, Roman Polanski's Macbeth and Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing in the '80s, Baz Luhrmann's triumphant Romeo and Juliet of the '90s and more recently Ralph Fiennes' Corialanus. Film can bring Shakespeare to a wider audience and often less can mean more to young people.

Nathaniel played Laertes in Zefferelli's Hamlet with Mel Gibson in the title role, an unexpected choice of actor and all the more interesting, Nathaniel says. Film makes the experience intimate. With its close-ups on expression it can focus on subtleties that are lost in a large auditorium. He tells me of his big moment when Laertes returns to confront Claudius about the death of his father and he has 82 lines, filled with his anger. In the film he had just four. All that anger had to be distilled into the shot and the whole of the back story was acted out: his riding to the castle, hammering on the door and then his lines, all four of them.

He played Cassio in the film of Othello directed by his brother, Oliver in 1995. A memorable version, he reckons it a gem, well-nigh perfect, with Kenneth Branagh a convincingly plausible Iago to Laurence Fishburne's noble Othello. It was his brother who gave him a note that he has found invaluable in his acting: he told him-always listen and the reply will come naturally if the script is good.

Nathaniel's favourite play

Macbeth remains his favourite play. He talks of being involved in a production by the Little Puppet Theatre in Islington using birds which reflected the sheer amount of bird imagery in the play, a wake-up to this aspect of it for him. He would love the stage role of Macbeth and yes, he would love to do a film of it.

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