Inside 'Wolf Hall,' Broadway's 8-hour binge
Perhaps you had to mentally prepare yourself for the 179-minute Wolf of Wall Street. Maybe you did some light stretches and not-so-light snack purchasing for 13-hour stretches of House of Cards or Daredevil. But rest assured that neither binge endeavor compares to the eight-and-a-half hour binge currently occurring three times a week on Broadway.
Wolf Hall: Parts One and Two is Broadway’s binge du jour, a two-part theatrical kick based on the acclaimed Hilary Mantel novels chronicling the rise of Thomas Cromwell in King Henry VIII’s court. In the stage iteration, the story is split into two equal parts: Wolf Hall, the first play, and Bring Up the Bodies, the second. Together, they’re one hell of a picnic event for audience members who can opt to cram both shows on the same day for a whopping afternoon and night at the theater (it’s just over five hours of actual performance time, not including responsible arrival times).
Wolf Hall is not the most ambitious theatrical marathon—Tom Stoppard’s epic Coast of Utopia trilogy memorably offered a handful of dates in 2007 wherein all three three-hour plays were performed. But for a story that’s been lauded for its accessibility to the non-Tudorphilic masses, the onstage Wolf has surprisingly managed to keep the audience both thrilled and in rapt attention. That’s only half the challenge, considering the actors who have to put on the actual thing.
“When I come out of that matinee, I’m bouncing off the walls, I just love it,” says Nathaniel Parker, who won an Olivier Award and is nominated for a Tony for his performance as the bombastic Henry VIII. “It’s like sports. You might be up 7 to zero, but you’ve got to finish the game. There’s no point dropping the bat and not putting energy into the next one. You’ve got to drive it! We’ve got more story to tell!”
Those exclamations barely convey the sheer enthusiasm of Parker, who, along with a majority of the Broadway cast, has remained with Wolf Hall since its original run in London. They’ve now got the two-show day down to a science, which Parker and co-star Lydia Leonard, who plays Anne Boleyn, boiled down into a handful of simple truths about putting on a Broadway marathon.
1. Every Broadway show has two-show days, but Wolf Hall stands apart.
“It’s much more fun than doing a two-show day of any other show where you have to go back and repeat yourself,” says Leonard, a Tony nominee for her role as the viciously mercurial Boleyn. “From that point of view, it’s easier, actually. It takes much more energy to repeat something than it does to continue with the story. Those double days fly by because you’re going on with the story.”
2. Not all story arcs are created equal.
In the cases of both Leonard and Parker, both of their characters fare much better in Wolf Hall than in Bring Up the Bodies. Boleyn, for instance, spends the first play gaining Henry’s favor and promenading playfully through the social hierarchy in the king’s court, but she spends the second play spiraling dramatically as the court turns on her. “In the second play, I become extremely tightly wound, physically and mentally, and that’s really tiring and has a physical effect on you,” says Leonard. (Hey, that’s what happens when your character slowly inches towards inevitable doom and execution.)
3. Slumps hit everyone differently.
Just like office workers face the downfall of the afternoon doldrums, Leonard and Parker must contend with a moment in the marathon when energy vanishes faster than the queen’s sympathy. “At the end of the second play, I have two 20-minute breaks when I’m not onstage, and since I’m not very good at reading books or watching telly during the show, I have to be careful not to fall asleep, especially if I’m so drained and exhausted on a Sunday,” explains Parker. “Your body can start to shut down, so you do what you can to keep yourself going. Me, I go through my lines to my dressing room mirror and make sure I do ev-er-y syl-la-ble to stretch my face.”
For Leonard, it’s “the prospect of what’s to come next” that causes a small momentum slump in the break between the shows, when the cast has a few hours to eat dinner and regroup. “I’d say you progressively gain back more energy throughout Bodies as the ending draws closer. You have this jolt, and there’s a lot more energy than you thought you had simply because you’re at the end.”
4. Warm ups, like gases, fill the volume of the container they’re in.
For Parker, the biggest challenge in playing the booming Henry VIII lies in his vocal cords, which are on full display in the almost 1,400-seat house. “I tend to sing to warm up—mostly Frank Sinatra’s ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers’—which I’ve done as my voice warm-up since drama school. The lyricism and breath control gives me a terrific warm up, especially because you have to reach every corner of the theater and Henry loses his temper quite often.” On the physical front, he’s also the only cast member to sprint up and down the aisles of the gargantuan Winter Garden Theatre to expend any extra energy he has.
5. Even kings need to juice, bro.
Parker has adopted Juice Press’s Rocket Fuel as his liquid sustenance of choice before, during, and after the show. “I used to drink coffee before the show, and I wondered why I’d be sweating and my heart was pounding before I went onstage,” he laughs. “I now know the reason! So I have those solid green juices, and I drink them right when I’m off stage.”
6. Period costumes don’t help anyone.
“I have six layers. Or is it seven? When I’ve got my fat suit on, people can’t get through a doorway with me,” says Parker. “The imposing nature of those costumes is extraordinary. And the girls have it much harder, but they also don’t have the weight the same way I do. My first costume in Bodies weighs 40 pounds. Soldiers do this all the time, but for wimpy actors like myself, you’ve got to be careful as you’re running around on stage and moving quickly and trying not to stand up in a bad way for your back.”
Leonard sums up the trouble in just a phrase: “Tudor undergarments, which on some days fit differently depending on what you’ve had for lunch.”
7. It’s hard to remember that you’re not actually royal between shows.
Even though both Parker and Leonard check their royal privilege at the stage door, the nature of continuing a story during dinner can sometimes mean that everyone’s staying in character. “I remember in Stratford-upon-Avon, where we started this all, it’s a small town and so you’d often find before a show that other members of the company are there buying their juices and meals, and sometimes they’d get on their knees and bow,” Parker says, perhaps joking. “Oh, it’s embarrassing. It’s not something I try to bring outside the theatre, but I do understand!”
Leonard agrees that Anne can come out unconsciously, although that’s more to do with the cast than with the actress: “Anne was a very powerful person and people, I’ve found, treated me like I was Anne, consciously or unconsciously. As if they imbued me with more status than I had! It was really quite a boost to my self-esteem, I have to say.”
8. Double days off are the greatest reward.
Thankfully, the cast receives two days off rather than the traditional one—“You need a day to relax, and then a day to actually do things,” says Leonard—but they expect the whole process may be flipped on its head when they begin performing the show backwards, with Bodies preceding Wolf Hall. Because, sure, why not make things just a little bit crazier for Broadway’s hardest-working Tudors?
Wolf Hall: Parts One and Two currently runs at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre.