In 'Wolf Hall,' unknown Lydia Leonard stakes a regal claim on U.S. stage

British actress Lydia Leonard's turn as Anne Boleyn in the Broadway theater play 'Wolf Hall' is turning heads

For the first hour of the Tudor stage epic "Wolf Hall," Anne Boleyn makes exactly one appearance. "Do you not know me?" she says, bitingly, to a key member of Henry VIII's court, then quickly disappears.

It's a question audiences may soon be asking too. The actress who utters the line is Lydia Leonard, an unknown 33-year-old native of a small English village — and a presence so new to the U.S. theater scene that until a few weeks ago she had never even seen a Broadway show, much less starred in one.

Yet on a stage that's swaggering with masculinity, Leonard distinguishes herself in several ways. Starring in a production that shares a name and story line with — if not the deadly serious spirit of — the concurrent PBS broadcast, Leonard blows in like a fresh gale, playing the ill-fated queen with equal parts manipulation and liberation.

"I didn't really know of Lydia before I cast her. I think I'd seen her in one small thing, as an Eastern European," said "Wolf Hall's" director, Jeremy Herrin, an Olivier-nominated British theater veteran. "But I was quickly struck by her. She had this mix of cold intellectuality and a strong emotional sense you don't often find in the same actor."

Leonard's success points to theater's ability to mint new stars from seemingly out of nowhere, even as her decidedly modern gregariousness serves as a reminder that portentous period actors on stage can be something very different off it.

As she walked through midtown Manhattan's theater district on a recent weekday, the diminutive Leonard proved a sparkplug presence, as taken with the swirl around her as many of the tourists who unknowingly passed her by. She was on her way to work after an actor's happy hour dinner (Sardi's, because it seemed the kind of prototypically Broadway-ish place she'd read about all those years in England).

Leonard speaks quickly and conversationally, a contrast to the Machiavellian pronouncements of her character. She described the friends razzing her on Facebook for all the morally slippery adjectives critics bestowed on her rendering of Anne Boleyn, cited the problems a carb-based meal presented to a corset-based costume and pondered whether her chosen castmate gift (bandannas) was on par with other castmate gifts (roses).

She spotted a billboard. "Oh, there I am," she said, with a mix of satisfaction and surprise as she gestured to a "Wolf Hall" image. On it, a frocked, steely-eyed Anne dominates the foreground while Nathaniel Parker's Henry and Ben Miles' lead character, Thomas Cromwell, hover behind. "Well, that's a little embarrassing," she said. "Why am I taking up so much more space than Ben and Nat?"

This was a comparatively easy day for the "Wolf Hall" actress — only a single two-hour, 45-minute show, compared with the 5½-hour, two-part marathons of other days, including the opening 24 hours earlier.

Indeed, "Wolf Hall" has become a phenomenon as multifarious as Henry VIII's matrimonial activities. Hilary Mantel's 2009 historical novel of the same name — about how the humbly rooted Cromwell plotted his way to behind-the-throne power, with Boleyn as ally and antagonist — won the Man Booker Prize, spawned a sequel ("Bring Up the Bodies"), a planned third book this year ("The Mirror and the Light)," a BBC miniseries based on the first two books (currently airing on PBS) and a two-part Royal Shakespeare Company staging.

After a pair of go-rounds in England, the Royal Shakespeare Company production, with most of its cast intact, opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre last week, to sparkling reviews. The show comes with a twist: On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, the two parts are performed consecutively, with just several hours of break in between. (Thursday is reserved just for the first part and Friday the second.)

But what could have been a simple stunt of stacking two different shows in the same day turns into far more than that — a piece that, by conveying a sense of ongoing drama, becomes a kind of live-theater spin on binge-watching. "We're part of an offering that pushes back at how tiny our goblets of culture are becoming," Herrin said.

Because Boleyn is as much a factor offstage — players frequently worry about what she will or won't do — as on it, Leonard has some breaks between showstoppers. Still, she commands the room pretty much whenever she occupies it. Leonard's character makes dramatic pronouncements such as "those who are made can be unmade" yet tempers her brassiness with vulnerability.

"Anne is strong and bold and often vicious, but I wanted to investigate her appeal to Henry — not to fall into the trap of making her likable, because that's irrelevant and not interesting — but to keep it fun and see how clever and bright she is," she said.

Of the real-life figure, she added, “It’s funny—even though Anne was a proto-feminist, she didn’t love women. I was doing Virginia Woolf in this television production at the same time as I was playing this character on the stage [in England], and Virginia Woolf really loved women. Anne Boleyn loved herself.”

Leonard's life as an actor began in school, where as a teenager her first role had her playing Dionysus in the Greek tragedy The Bacchae (she would frequently play male roles as a student). Since turning professional, Leonard has appeared often in period pieces, largely on the stage (e.g., a Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Hecuba" and as Jacqueline Onassis on the West End), though she did have a small role in the Bill Condon-directed WikiLeaks movie "The Fifth Estate."

Herrin believes Leonard's success comes from her ability to hold her own in a male-dominated world, both in the show and beyond. "There's something about her that's very comfortable with men — something dynamic and tough and a little tomboyish and competitive," he said. "She fights for things; there's nothing demure or coquettish or backfoot about her."

Co-star Miles chuckled when asked about the actress' demeanor. "She says exactly what she thinks. Always in the nicest way. But she is always ready with a comeback."

Added Mantel in an email, "Lydia bears an uncanny resemblance to the Anne Boleyn of our imaginations...She has the grace and sinuous power, the challenging intelligence."

Shortly before curtain, Leonard was bouncing around her dressing room — it's a small space, pinned with theater quotes and cards from friends — before a crew member helped her into a corset. "The play makes a lot of references to Anne as flat-chested but this thing has a tendency to push them up," she said, giving a small laugh as she gestured to herself. Then she headed down to the wardrobe area. Nearly a dozen dresses hang there — Leonard has a costume change after almost every scene, many of the outfits so heavy they caused back pain earlier in the production.

The pièce de résistance is the crown, placed with great ceremony on her head during a coronation scene.

"It's really not quite big enough," she said, then playfully slid the bejeweled accessory one way on her head in a hip-hop pose and another to look like a court jester. "But I guess they really liked it. I'm always worried it will fall off while I'm walking. I don't know what I'd do if that happened." She paused. "I am Anne. I guess I probably would make someone else pick it up."

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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