A Conversation with Giles Taylor, Renowned Shakespearean Actor Now Performing in WOLF HALL

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Giles Taylor
Giles Taylor

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Giles Taylor, renowned English Shakespearean actor, is also a highly respected teacher, mentor and consultant to emerging stage actors. With exhaustive stage, screen and television credits, Giles is well known throughout the United Kingdom for his outstanding acting skills and technical mastery of classical verse and language, rhetoric and form. Currently, Giles is an actor for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Tony nominated Wolf Hall, Parts One & Two, now playing at the Winter Garden Theater, Broadway, New York City. Portraying Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond, and Jean de Dinteville, the French Ambassador, Giles adds richness and authenticity not only to his specific roles, but also to the overall outstanding ensemble cast performance.

QueenAnneBoleyn.com recently caught up with the remarkably gifted Giles Taylor. You will find his insight into a variety of questions posed intriguing.

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Lydia Leonard (left) as Anne Boleyn with Gile Taylor (right) as Thomas Cranmer Photo Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company
Lydia Leonard (left) as Anne Boleyn with Giles Taylor (right) as Thomas Cranmer
Photo Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company

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Giles, when you were offered the roles you portray in the Royal Shakespeare Company Wolf Hall plays, did you have any idea how popular they would become both in the United Kingdom and the United States?

I knew the books were hugely popular, but had no idea whether the plays would work, let alone catch the public’s imagination as they have done.

Did the apparent knowledge of the American audiences come as a surprise to you?

No. I knew the books were popular in the States, and that the Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for English History and period drama generally. The pleasant surprise has been our American audiences’ religious knowledge. We are so secular now in the UK that the religious references and jokes went for very little, but here in NYC they go down like a storm!

I am asking this question at the request of a few QAB members and browsers. Through the popular media, many Americans are led to believe that the plays as performed in London were shortened with simplifications made for American audiences. Some Americans took offense to this. Were the changes significant? Or is this “Much Ado About Nothing”?

This is not a case of ‘dumbing down’, if that is what people took offence at. The American producers wanted the show to be 5 to 10 minutes shorter each, and a small handful of references were cut which American audiences would simply not have understood (such as a joke about Stoke Newington being in the countryside… You see, it’s not funny in America!) The rewrites for Broadway were done solely by Hilary Mantel. She wanted to tighten the story-telling and to build on our runs in Stratford and London. This version is certainly the best to date, so actually the American audience should be proud that they have seen the optimum version.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (Photo Credit: Jesus College, Cambridge)
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury
(Photo Credit: Jesus College, Cambridge)

Giles, after enjoying both Wolf Hall plays and also the BBC mini-series, I was struck by how much more prominent a role Thomas Cranmer has in the plays as opposed to the mini-series. In your performance of Thomas Cranmer, did you consult with Hilary Mantel (or a historian) as Ben Miles did for Thomas Cromwell?

I too was shocked by how small a role Cranmer was in the TV version (played by my friend Will Keen, who has just been in Ghosts at BAM.) Hilary gave us extraordinary character profiles (included in the printed copy of the plays) which were very helpful, and of course the books themselves were invaluable. It can be dangerous to over research historical characters, because there are often very differing accounts of them. Fundamentally we have to tell the story in the plays with the words and scenes we’re given. In this case Hilary’s books proved research enough… as well as a rudimentary ‘google’ history lesson. 

I’m fascinated by Cranmer’s marriage to Margrete, but since it does not appear in any form in the plays, there is no point researching it too fully. Otherwise, you run the risk of thinking thoughts that are irrelevant to clear story-telling of the play, which can then muddy your performance somewhat, even if it is truer to the character.

Linguistics research teaches us that Thomas Cranmer’s writing influenced Shakespeare in his. 

Shakespeare is such a magpie. It is no surprise that Cranmer’s writings and turns of phrase influenced him, particularly The Book of Common Prayer, which Shakespeare would have been brought up with and probably known by heart.

Did you dig into your Shakespearean roots to help find his voice?

Because our text is in a more modern vernacular, my Shakespearean knowledge was sadly of little practical use.

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Royal Shakespeare Company WOLF HALL actors from left to right: Nicholas Boulton as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk; Matthew Foster as George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford; and Giles Taylor as Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond Photo Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Company WOLF HALL actors from left to right: Nicholas Boulton as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk; Benedict Hastings as the King’s Page; Oscar Pearce as George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford; and Giles Taylor as Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Wiltshire and Ormond
Photo Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company

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In Wolf Hall you and other actors perform multiple roles. I need to say that I was impressed by this, as everyone mastered their roles so brilliantly. I really could not tell the same people portrayed different roles until I read the playbill. Performing multiple roles in the same major Broadway production is unusual in the United States. How common is this in the United Kingdom? As a follow-up, how much skill and flexibility does it require to pull this off convincingly?

It is fairly common in plays which have so many characters. It would simply not be affordable to put these plays on with one actor per character… and no fun for the actors, since the supporting roles are not fulsome or rewarding enough individually.

Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell Photo Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company
Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell
Photo Credit: Royal Shakespeare Company

Several people who enjoyed the Wolf Hall plays shared with me their admiration for the cast’s ability to perform two different full length plays, one after the other. How complicated is it to learn the dialogue and acts? Is this as exhausting as we assume? Also, as a follow-up, what strategies do actors use to maintain their passion, endurance and energy?

It is just like doing one long play, so it is no more difficult. For someone like Ben Miles (playing Cromwell) it is a massive undertaking, because he barely leaves the stage. He not only has to know all his lines, but what on earth comes next.

In a recent correspondence, you told me you were heading for “understudy rehearsal”. Can you explain what the role of an understudy is? How common is it for actors hired as understudies to find themselves on stage?

Understudies are a requirement in commercial theatre to prevent loss of revenue from having to cancel a performance through illness or injury. We have been performing these plays since December 2103, and only four understudies have been on, and one of those because of paternity leave. I personally loathe understudying; I find it thankless, stressful and tiresome. Regardless of how good a role you understudy, it is never your role. 

Most American productions will have an entire understudy company separate from the principal company. We, however, have the RSC mould, in which all roles are covered from within the company. If I go on as Wolsey, Tom Wyatt goes on for me. Mark Smeaton goes on for Wyatt… and so on down the line. Seven people change place, which is a nightmare!

With 25 years as an actor and over 15 years as a Shakespearean Consultant, you obviously have exhaustive knowledge of 16th century linguistics and rhetoric. With that as a given, do you also research the historical characters you portray to get a sense of who they were as people? If so, in what ways does that enrich your performance?

I do research them as fully as possible, but as I said above, it can be very confusing and counterproductive. Shakespeare famously wrote his history plays with little regard for actual history! He was too busy trying to flatter Elizabeth or James, or make some political or social point.

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The Globe Theatre, London Photo Credit: Study Experiences
The Globe Theatre, London
Photo Credit: Study Experiences

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I am exceptionally intrigued by the whole concept around the linguistics and phonics playwrights and actors use when performing historical works, whether on stage or screen. In Wolf Hall, modern linguistics and phonics are used. I am curious, Giles, when acting Shakespearean plays whether the phonics you use when speaking is period accurate (original pronunciation) or adapted for a modern audience? Can you explain to members and browsers your philosophy on this and what you teach your students?

The Globe Theatre experiments occasionally with ‘OP’ (original pronunciation), but this is a purely academic exercise. There is little point to my mind presenting Renaissance plays in original pronunciation (all educated supposition anyway), since it only further alienates the audience. The period language is hard enough! Look up Ben Crystal (and his father) on YouTube doing ‘OP”. It is fascinating, but impractical in performance in my opinion.

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Editor’s Note: The YouTube Giles Taylor suggested we view is provided below. It provides an introduction by David and Ben Crystal to the ‘Original Pronunciation’ production of Shakespeare and what it reveals about the history of the English language.

Video Credit: The Open University

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You are a teacher of emerging Shakespearean actors. What do you see as your role in molding the skills of your students? What are you most hoping to impart to them?

Classical verse speaking is taught very poorly in drama schools in England. Young graduates that I meet and work with are seldom confident in what they are doing technically with the verse and language. My approach is to give actors a complete knowledge of how the language and form works, and how they can use it to create their own character and tell their story as dynamically as possible. In short, to take ownership of their text.

Is there a teacher or mentor you most credit for influencing your acting skills and technique?

I did not go to drama school, so my knowledge has come from my Classical schooling (I have a Classics degree), working with one or two inspiring directors, and a lot of practical application!

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

I understand you are the founder of Bardolatry. Tell us all about it!

Bardolatry has two arms: 1. a Shakespeare reading group; and 2. a group of actors and emerging directors who meet to experiment with the performance of verse drama. In brief!

Editor’s Note: The term bardolatry is defined as “the worship”, especially if considered excessive, of William Shakespeare. What a great name for a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts!

It is my understanding that you are in process of writing a book in partnership with theater director Philip Wilson entitled Dramatic Adventures in Rhetoric: A Guide for Actors, Directors and Playwrights. The title of the work is self-evident, but what is your motivation in committing your expertise to the written page?

Philip Wilson, Theatre Director
Philip Wilson, Theater Director

We recognised that no-one has written about how omnipresent rhetoric is in the field of drama. It is after all, how we all communicate every day, not just the preserve of politicians and the ancient Greeks. The more we looked into it, the more overwhelmed we were by how useful it was to examine theatrical texts in this way.

Are there any exciting new projects you would like to share with QAB members and browsers?

None, as yet. It’s tough being in the wrong country when things are casting. You can’t audition for them. I will return to more Shakespeare teaching… and possibly moving house!

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QueenAnneBoleyn.com extends our heartfelt appreciation to Giles Taylor for taking time out of his exhaustive schedule to participate in this comprehensive interview. We extend our best wishes to Giles and the rest of the talented cast and crew of Wolf Hall, Plays One and Two. “Break a leg” with your remaining performances and best wishes at the Tony Awards!

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Editor’s Note: To learn more about the remarkable Giles Taylor, enjoy his wonderful interview with The Acting Network!

Video Credit: The Acting Network

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WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles will premiers on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 2015.
WOLF HALL, PARTS ONE & TWO, featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles premiered on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater on March 20th and will run through July 5th.

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AUTHOR HIGHLIGHT

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

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Hilary Mantel is a highly acclaimed, award winning English historical fiction writer of novels and short stories. A two time Man Booker Prize Award honored author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both novels featuring Thomas Cromwell as main character, Hilary Mantel is currently composing the final novel of her Tudor Era trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. 

Considered by many to be the world’s finest historical fiction author writing in the English language, Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985. Since then, Mantel’s exhaustive body of work includes a variety of stellar novels and short story compilations. Her commitment to and interest in composing compelling short stories greatly enhanced the genre’s popularity with readers and continued publishing viability.

Awards and prizes bestowed upon Hilary Mantel for extraordinary accomplishment in literature include the following: Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize 1987, Southern Arts Literature Prize 1990, The Cheltenham Prize 1990, Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize 1990, Sunday Express Book of the Year 1992, Hawthornden Prize 1996, CBE 2006, Yorkshire Post Book Award (Book of the Year) 2006, Costa Novel Award 2009, Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2009, National Book Critics’ Circle Award (US) 2009, James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) 2010, Walter Scott Prize 2010, and Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2012.

A portrait of Hilary Mantel, the creativity of Nick Lord, is on display at the British Library. She is the only living author to be bestowed such honor.

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Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

6 Replies to “A Conversation with Giles Taylor, Renowned Shakespearean Actor Now Performing in WOLF HALL

  1. Master Taylor!!!!!!!!!! Bend thy knee and flatter, good man! The bard… he humbles not.

    I need a name for Master Taylor, methinks. I knowest. He be myne “pied ninny”.

  2. Your Grace, go fetch Master Giles Taylor to perform in our Reformation Plays. I beckoned the Carmelite Prior John Bale. His quill be what we need. Bale and Taylor, aye… God make it so.

  3. “See a prayer book in his hand,
    True ornaments to know a holy man.” — William Shakespeare

    Giles Taylor honours me with his stellar performance. Bravo, good man!

  4. What a wonderful interview. It was a pleasure meeting Giles. He was very gracious. I am thrilled to hear his views on Wolf Hall the play and his teaching experiences. Good luck Giles.

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