He’s just played Gordon Brown in the West End (in The Audience), and he’s now gearing up to play Henry VIII – complete with beard – in the RSC adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s novels; Nathaniel Parker is an actor whose next move is impossible to predict.
When I speak to Parker, he tells me he’s been up since half past five – “that’s just my daily routine!” he says cheerily – and even found time to check out A Younger Theatre this morning. “I keep reminding myself to pick up The Wicker Man,” he says. This is because his jam-packed schedule includes a collaboration with Noise of Art this Friday, 4 October at Elefest, a celebration of Elephant and Castle.
Noise of Art is an electronic music and art collective, which brought its performance of Wicker Man Disco Inferno to Latitude this summer, mixing dance, film, music and literature. Parker was asked by the Noise of Art’s DJ, Ben Osborne (who he has known for over a decade), to provide spoken word readings of passages from The Wicker Man. “I said, yeah, sure I’ll do it – it sounded like too good an opportunity to miss. I’ve been on a few different stages in my life, but never a festival stage. It was quite a buzz for me,” says Parker. “It was very much on the hoof. It wasn’t rehearsed at all. Basically I just said to Ben, ‘tap me on the shoulder when you want me to speak, otherwise I’ll shut up!’ And then the dancers, who hadn’t actually figured out what they were going to do yet – they were captivating. That is the word. Really exciting and different. These guys just created. It was lovely.”
He had no idea he would get to perform the piece again at Elefest, and is overjoyed at the prospect. “I came away from the piece at Latitude bouncing like a little ball. I have a lovely time being on stages but I’ve never been on a stage before where I’ve had dancing in front of me, so that was a real buzz.” Rehearsing in Clapham for the RSC, Nathaniel is close to Elephant and Castle and he’s grateful to be in the vicinity. His thrill from embracing unknown and innovative projects is clear. “I knew nothing of Elefest before, but I had no idea what I was doing in the first place!” he laughs.
But it seems that, like his work with Noise of Art, Nathaniel’s desire to take risks with his work often pays off. He says he is attracted to roles that people don’t expect him to play – like Gordon Brown in Peter Morgan’s sell out success, The Audience. “Peter Morgan wrote a very interesting version of him – sympathetic and vulnerable – which is not what you often see from Gordon as a persona. The public persona of him has, of course, been massively manipulated by the press. I think he’s one of the brightest prime ministers we’ve ever had – an extraordinarily clever man,” he tells me. Nathaniel tells me he met Gordon several times, “so I know how well placed his heart is,” and it’s obvious that through playing him, he gained an understanding of him as a man, rather than just as a prime minister.
Parker launches into an impersonation of Brown which is so uncannily accurate that I wonder if I’m about to hear the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath’s view on the Conservative party conference. His admiration for the much maligned former PM is obvious – as is his pleasure at working with the play’s star, Helen Mirren. “She’s become, as my nephew would say, a ‘legend’. On stage with her, there were times I was late on my cue – I was just watching her, going ‘fuck-ing hell. You’re good!’ And then I had to go, ‘oops, I’ve missed my cue!’ She was just encapsulating.”
For now, though, Parker is rehearsing for this winter’s RSC productions of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. He performed at the RSC early in his career, and tells me, “Yesterday we started doing a bit of movement, because people dance in this play – it’s the RSC. And I sat down in between sessions next to the writer and I said, ‘OK, I’m back at the RSC now!’ It’s unmistakable. Definitely an institution to be incredibly proud of.”
Hilary Mantel’s books have enchanted critics as well as thousands of readers, and now she is sharing her wisdom with the cast. “Anything you put to her, she knew exactly what she wanted to say – blissfully clear words. I think the whole time she said ‘um’ twice. I mean two ‘um’s! In three-and-a-half hours. Without a note! Extraordinary. It’s difficult to say how much I admire the woman now.”
It’s clear, as we come to the end of our conversation, that the prospect of playing Henry VIII is one that Parker finds incredibly thrilling. He believes that the opportunity to bring a piece of new work to the stage, unseen by audiences, is less likely to be beleaguered with preconceptions. “A lot of people have played Henry, and they’ve done it brilliantly – but they haven’t seen this Henry before. Because they haven’t seen this play before. So I’m very lucky.”