This House Star Nathaniel Parker on Politics, Star Verhicles and Memories of Wolf Hall's Tony Noms
Interview by Matt Wolf
Nathaniel Parker has twice played Broadway, first opposite Dustin Hoffman in 1989 in The Merchant of Venice and then in 2015 in his Tony-nommed performance as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall, for which he won an Olivier the same year. Parker is remaining in the political realm with the now-previewing West End transfer to the Garrick Theatre of This House, James Graham’s acclaimed 2012 play about parliamentary goings-on in the 1970s, directed by fellow Wolf Hall Tony nominee, Jeremy Herrin. Broadway.com caught the supremely affable Parker during a break from rehearsals and found him in characteristically expansive form.
What’s it like being a newcomer to this play?
I hadn’t seen [This House] before during either of its runs at the National, so I had to take it on trust from Jeremy [Herrin, director] and from reading it. My first reaction was, “God, how fantastic!” And my second was, “How little are they paying me?”
Did you soon get over that?
There was a bit of umming and ahhing there, but the lovely thing I learned from Wolf Hall is that Jeremy is one of the best directors in the world and when he asks you to do something, it’s a real compliment.
Did you and [Herrin] get on from the start on Wolf Hall?
Actually, we had a little bit of a tussle during our first meeting but the thing about him is that he is so bright and also quite funny—he was a stand-up [comic] and has got a great rhythm about him. He moves people around the stage so well, and although I thought at first he was being rather flippant, he was just so right. As a director, he completely opened me up and gave me a chance to discover in myself a confidence I didn’t know I had. He, in the end, made me trust myself, which is something I never do.
How would you describe This House, which is considerably less dry in performance than it might sound in print?
That’s a very good question. I guess one has to skirt around the idea of saying that it tracks a Labour government from 1974-9 because that is what it does historically at a time when it was extraordinary that they hung on to power for four and a half years. But I think it’s also the fastest, funniest political dramas you will ever see. I think of it as a mixture between House of Cards and Noises Off.
Did you see Jeremy’s Broadway production Noises Off last season?
I did and almost fell off my seat—and a very expensive seat it was, too.
Does This House in the West End feel like a commercial risk?
It is a risk. Yes, it has been tested across two stages at the National and we’ve been doing it with half the original cast replaced for five or six weeks at Chichester [south of London]. But I think what’s great is that we’ve got the political intrigue but also something of the speed of farce, and you should see the disbelief on the audience’s faces when you see some of the stuff that happened, like people being locked in cupboards!
Do you think the play might speak to American audiences?
I do. It's timelessly funny and timelessly fast and its geography doesn't really matter. I mean, look what has happened to America now—and that's the home of democracy!
Were you keen to talk to your predecessor Charles Edwards about taking on the part of Jack Weatherill, the onetime, and very popular, Speaker of the House of Commons?
I’d only met Charlie a couple of times and didn’t really worry about that. All I thought was, “Oh my God, he would have been so much better than me!” I can see why he was originally cast.
How much did you know beforehand about Weatherill, given among other things that your father [the late Sir Peter Parker, the former chairman of British Rail] clearly moved in political circles?
Did it make a difference that Wolf Hall wasn’t star-driven?
Well, neither my father, who was a Labour man most of his life, nor Jack was any friend of Margaret Thatcher, so that was one thing. But what struck me about Jack was that he was a very laidback chap. He’d been in the Indian army and was very close to his soldiers, I think, and when there was trouble, he was always in there with them. Then he found himself back in England, this Tory MP in a smart suit practicing yoga and meditation!
Do you have another political figure you might like to play after Henry VIII and Jack Weatherill?
There are a few other challenges I’d like to try, some of whom are with us and some of whom are quite recently departed. I guess the likelihood of me playing Margaret Thatcher is pretty slim, though Glenda Jackson is now playing Lear.
Growing up in a politically savvy household, did you lean at all towards politics as a career?
Yeah, but I also thought at different times of becoming an astronaut or Fred Astaire or [folk hero] Casey Jones and I think I had realized by the age of nine that the one thing all these various figures had in common was acting. I think also as a politician I would have had so many arrows thrown at me, and rocks, that there really wasn’t much point, but I’m now rather more political than I was and I do have some friends in the Labour Party whom I support.
How was it returning to Broadway in Wolf Hall having been there a quarter-century ago with Dustin Hoffman in Sir Peter Hall’s staging of The Merchant of Venice?
It was very different in that I felt much more Broadway-savvy this time around. The first time I was doing a telly just before we got to New York so I was slightly overworked and a bit tired but with Wolf Hall, when we sat down for the first read-through, I thought, “OK, this is a hit: it’s not a matter of going to London from Stratford, this is about us getting to Broadway.” It was the first time I ever felt that.
Absolutely. On Merchant, I was blown away by the rest of the cast, Dustin Hoffman particularly, but the play didn’t engender the same ensemble attitude. With Wolf Hall, it felt like the most wonderful ensemble piece.
What is your abiding memory of Tony season?
I’d have to do these hand-pressing parties between matinee and evening shows as Henry, and that in itself was six hours of drama a day and pretty tiring stuff but also really exhilarating; I just loved it. The thing about L.A. is that everyone smiles if they’re not telling the truth, but in New York, it was all so genuine and I met some amazing people, which was a real privilege. And, you know, we got every possible Tony nomination we could have been given. We didn’t win, but there you go.