A Woman's World: Wolf Hall Stars on Slut Shaming, Sex in the 16th Century and Revenge on Henry VIII

News   A Woman's World: Wolf Hall Stars on Slut Shaming, Sex in the 16th Century and Revenge on Henry VIII
 
The women of Wolf Hall, the dramatization of Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII, discuss power and sexuality in the stage story about the Tudors in England.

*

Upon sitting down with Lucy Briers, Lydia Leonard, Leah Brotherhead and Olivia Darnley in the Winter Garden Theater, this writer joked, "I should have curtsied."

"You should be!" Leonard said when I offered my apologies. "I'm quite offended that you haven't!"

Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in <i>Wolf Hall</i>
Ben Miles and Lydia Leonard in Wolf Hall Photo by Johan Persson

Formalities aside, the four principal actresses in Wolf Hall and I immediately got down to business, launching into a discussion about the power of women in 16th-century England, sexuality and the many, many wives of Henry VIII.

A two-part import from London, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are based on the Hilary Mantel history novels about the bloody reign of Henry VIII. After an extended run in London, Mike Poulton's play and its entire cast transferred to Broadway, accumulating eight Tony Award nominations. The two plays follow Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), the ambitious adviser to Henry VIII who assisted in navigating the King of England's manipulation of the political and religious systems in order to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon (Lucy Briers) in order to marry Anne Boleyn (Lydia Leonard), and then order the beheading of Anne Boleyn in order to marry Jane Seymour (Leah Brotherhead).

An often-reviled figure in history, Henry VIII is notorious for his obsession with producing a male heir — the reason behind his numerous wives and their various violent and bloody deaths.

While Henry's fixation with a son is often mocked in present-day culture, Briers offered insight into his actions, despite her character having been the first wife to be spurned.

Explaining that Katherine was told at the age of three that she would marry into the House of Tudors and grew up viewing it as an inevitable duty, Briers emphasized the Queen's independent and feminist spirit that co-existed with her devotion to her husband.

"Katherine came from the context of her mother was the more powerful of her parents. Her mother was the Queen of Spain. Her father was the King, but her mother had the status through her family lineage. So for Katherine, she's a feminist. So she doesn't really understand why Henry is so obsessed with having a male heir.

"If she speaks to women now, it's because she was so strong and so principled. I think she was cleverer than Henry. She was very clever politically, and she understood politics far better than Henry did. As you see in the scenes with Cromwell, she can read Cromwell and she always slightly one-ups him. And the only thing that defeats her is what defeats all of us: He's the King. He says what goes."

Lucy Briers in <i>Wolf Hall</i>
Lucy Briers in Wolf Hall

Tony nominee Leonard plays Anne Boleyn, the woman who catches the King's eye but refuses to sleep with him until they are married — a shocking denial to the amorous ruler who had many lovers, including Anne's sister Mary. While Boleyn does eventually marry the King, their marriage is short-lived and ends with Anne being accused of cheating on her husband with four men (including her brother), and subsequently beheaded.

"Do you have the phrase 'slut shaming' here? I feel that's very much what happened to Anne Boleyn, and it's the easiest way to take down a woman — to make sexual slurs about her character," Leonard said. "She makes a lot of mistakes, mistaking status for power, but having that sort of taken away, and the disempowerment of having your character completely annihilated is tragic."

Anne's tragedy is quickly followed by Henry's marriage to Jane Seymour, who had served as lady-in-waiting to Anne. Commenting on her character, who is introduced by saying, "I'm nobody. I'm only Jane Seymour," Brotherhead said that Jane is often considered to be a pawn in Henry's life, but Mantel offers a different perspective on the woman.

"Hilary kind of turned that a bit on its head and said, 'Actually, because she was a lady-in-waiting to Katherine, and Anne and saw how those women kind of played out their lives and dealt with Henry... Jane was quite clever and played it a very different way,'" Brotherhead said. "In terms of women, it wasn't very empowering in how she played it. She wasn't clever in that she went, 'That's what's going to happen if I push it and maybe try and be political and get things done.' But instead she kind of goes, 'I'm going to look after myself and I'm going to protect myself in this dangerous world of men.'"

Darnley plays two women in Cromwell and Henry's lives: Cromwell's wife, Lizzie Wykys, and Mary Boleyn, who is lovers with Henry before Anne enters the picture. Darnley views both women as interesting and unique, commenting on their independence at a time when female independence was not encouraged. "For a long time in rehearsals I played her as very sad," Darnley said. "I felt really sad for her. I think she and Henry loved each other. But that's the way you get around a character so you can understand why she would remain someone's mistress for six years."

When looking at each of the women's relationships with Henry, the question of why each of them married him or stayed with him was asked to all, and each of the answers involved love, power and politics.

"I think Katherine and Henry genuinely did love each other. He was very much in love with her when they married," Briers said. "I think they genuinely had a really good marriage. Early on in the marriage, he always asked her about political stuff. She was part of the council. And on her deathbed, she described Henry as immaculate. She never really fully blamed him. I think she loved him right to the end. And there's that tiny bit in Bring Up the Bodies where I say, 'Tell him I pray for him.' It's just in that moment where I hope I convey I still love him. It doesn't matter what he does to me. I still love him."

"I think Anne loved him because he's the King, and also I think they were brought up to marry well and she sees how it pans out not so well for Mary Boleyn by succumbing and becoming his concubine," Leonard added. "It's survival for not a particularly nice family, the Boleyns. He's King and that can make her Queen, and that's absolutely brilliant. And she's clever enough to politically mastermind the situation. So I don't know how much romantic love there is there, but there is certainly a passionate admiration for each other — the power they see in each other. But, of course, it goes quickly after they get married and things sour."

Olivia Darnley in <i>Wolf Hall</i>
Olivia Darnley in Wolf Hall Photo by Johan Persson

"I imagine Jane's kind of love towards Henry as a duty," Brotherhead offered. "As a thing that [has] happened to me, and I will do this and I will attempt within my own way as a woman in this world to kind of fix this mess that has happened. She very much tried to get Mary and Elizabeth back into court and create this kind of family again, and I think that's how she saw that. How she could be of use in that world. She seems like just a very good person, but very careful and knows her boundaries and didn't want to push it."

But what if the women could push the boundaries? When asked what kind of revenge their characters would take on Henry, if given the opportunity, they paused before answering.

"Remain married and remain Queen of England and stay where I was. And she's just some kind of floozy mistress who comes and goes," Briers said.

"I think I'd just beat him into a corner with my bare hands and tell him what a stupid idiot he is," Leonard added.

"I think [Jane] is almost so oppressed by men that she sees it as a duty and as something she should do," Brotherhead chimed in.

Saying that women were seen as "a sort of womb with legs on it," all of the women expressed their frustration with the patriarchal aspects of society.

"It is astounding that literally only with [the current] prince and princess — the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — only now that they've changed the law whereby through her first-born, if it had been a girl, would have been the first in line to the throne," Briers said. "We're in 2015."

"I think it's sad how much similarities there are now," Brotherhead added. "I think we've still got a long way to go."

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

The cast of <i>Wolf Hall</i>
The cast of Wolf Hall Photo by Johan Persson
Today’s Most Popular News: