BWW Interviews: Lydia Leonard, Anne Boleyn in RSC's WOLF HALL And BRING UP THE BODIES

BWW Interviews: Lydia Leonard, Anne Boleyn in RSC's WOLF HALL And BRING UP THE BODIES

As a Tudor history obsessive, it's a source of constant professional frustration to me that I can never ask some of the key players the questions that would establish the truth behind the myths and mysteries.

Performers taking on roles of iconic real-life people, however, get to sift through the sources to understand the figure they're portraying.

"Anne Boleyn is still now in the public consciousness - she represents lots of different things to different people, none of which might be true," says Lydia Leonard, who's playing the second of Henry VIII's six wives in the RSC's productions of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. "In her lifetime she was the focus of all sorts of accusations, and then even more ridiculous stories after she died."

Leonard studied the era at school, but since being cast has been reading Hilary Mantel's novels, upon which the plays are based, as well as bits of wider reading. She's keen to keep her focus on Anne as a character as written rather than doing too much exploration into Anne as a real person - but having the author on hand helps with any questions around motivation.

"I'm playing Hilary Mantel's Anne Boleyn - she's a cog in the plot, and seen through [politician] Thomas Cromwell's eyes. It's been a real gift to have Hilary around all the time - we can ask her anything and she'll answer without pausing for breath. She's had these characters in her head for years, and she knows them all so well."

Even so, Leonard has been working to understand the woman behind the legends, visiting her burial place at the Tower of London, and she clearly thinks all the stories gloss over a complex, clever woman.

"As lots of women find in the press today, she's held up as some sort of sexpot, whereas actually someone who can say 'no' to the King of England for six years is not carnally driven. She's much more calculating and cerebral and sophisticated than that.

"She was ambitious - and flawed. Under pressure she is quick-tempered and abrasive and the men around her eventually left her. Part of her demise was rubbing people up the wrong way, which is odd, for someone so clever - she didn't realise the explosive situation she was getting herself in to.

"If she'd had a son, she would have been absolutely fine. She could have done whatever she wanted. She could have behaved differently, but that's why she's so wonderful. She didn't pander - she didn't pretend to be meek or less intelligent than she was.

"She was so much cleverer than Henry. I think she probably found him pretty boring, ultimately. There's a line in the play that she thought every day would be like her coronation day. She got there, and she wasn't happy. Henry started paying attention to Jane Seymour, which Anne took as deeply insulting - Jane's just this mousy little thing. So she surrounded herself with the men of the court - and that was normal at the time, with the traditions of courtly love - for her own ego, and she didn't realise how dangerous that could be once favour went against her."

Those men of the court stayed loyal to her until the end, whereas her family did not.

"Her family pushed her sister into becoming Henry's mistress first, then realised he was into Anne, so pushed her forward. They thought they could use her as a pawn, but actually once she became queen she thought, 'Right, I'm in charge of this family.' And they abandoned her."

Henry VIII too is more complicated than popular history portrays him - the half-dozen marriages and idea of a jolly, bearded king detract focus from his behaviour and self-mythology.

"Ultimately Henry is a woman-murderer. I don't think he was mad. What's interesting in the play is how he's written - he's not a bad person. It brings over how complicated he was. He was likeable, and childish, and spoilt - he's able to compartmentalise in a way that some people can, and believe what he needs to believe in any situation, which is quite frightening."

In terms of the stagecraft, Leonard is enjoying the "beautiful" dresses - all eleven of them - but is relieved not to be wearing one of her colleagues' costumes, which weighs two stone. And she's enjoying the residency at the Aldwych Theatre, which has meant a few tweaks to script and a lot of tweaks in staging, to take into account the proscenium arch.

Both plays are running in rep, with some days offering Wolf Hall as a matinee and Bring Up The Bodies in the evening.

"It's good seeing it as a double-bill. It sounds like a marathon, but you get the most out of it, I think. I really love playing the whole day - there's such an arc with her rise and her downfall."

And you don't need to have any prior knowledge of the era to appreciate the plays, enthuses Leonard.

"It's such a good story - with such amazing characters."

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies play the Aldwych Theatre.

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From This Author Carrie Dunn

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