Harriet Walter on playing Shakespeare’s great roles

Harriet WalterIn her new book Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, acclaimed actor Harriet Walter looks back at her experiences of playing many of Shakespeare’s most famous roles – both female and male – across her varied and distinguished career. Her perceptive and intimate accounts illustrate each play as a whole, and provide invaluable insights for anyone looking to tackle the roles themselves. Here, in a series of extracts from the book, she explores five different roles spanning four decades…

OPHELIA – Hamlet, 1981

Ophelia

As Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce (Hamlet); Hamlet, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1980
(© John Haynes/Lebrecht Music & Arts)

The most famous thing about Ophelia is that she goes mad. Richard Eyre, who’d asked me to play Ophelia to Jonathan Pryce’s Hamlet, had given me one major tip as to what he wanted, by telling me what he didn’t want. He did not want ‘mad acting’. I knew what he meant. For Ophelia, her mad scene is an ungoverned artless release; for the actress playing her it can be a chance to show off her repertoire of lolling tongues and rolling eyes, in a fey and affecting aria which is anything but artless. That is the paradox of acting mad. The actor is self-conscious in every sense, while the mad person has lost their hold on self.

Generalised mad acting, being unhinged from any centre, leaves the actor floundering in their own embarrassment. The remedy for me was to find a method in Ophelia’s madness, so that I could root her actions in her motivations (however insane and disordered), just as I would with any other character I was playing. Before playing her I had shared with many others the impression that Ophelia was a bit of a colourless part—that is, until she goes mad. I needed to find a unifying scheme that would contain both the ‘interesting’ mad Ophelia and the ‘boring’ sane Ophelia.

Suppose Ophelia is happily ‘normal’ until her lover rejects her and murders her father. Is that necessarily a cue to go mad? After all, Juliet suffered something of the kind when Romeo killed Tybalt, and although the idea tormented her she did not flip. I started to see that the seeds of Ophelia’s madness had been sown long before the play started, by the workings of a cold, repressive environment on an already susceptible mind. I preferred this theory to the sudden madness-through-grief idea which, together with broken hearts and walking spirits, seemed to belong in the theatre of Henry Irving or a Victorian poem.


VIOLA – Twelfth Night, 1987

Viola

As Viola with Donald Sumpter (Orsino); Twelfth Night, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1987
(© Ivan Kyncl/Arena PAL)

I don’t think that Viola is a naturally comic role.  Consider her situation:

Viola is shipwrecked, an orphan in a foreign land where no one knows her, and she believes her twin brother and only relative has been drowned. She then falls in love with a man who thinks she’s a boy, and who is infatuated with another woman, and is sent to woo that rival on behalf of the man she loves. Olivia then falls in love with her boy disguise. The audience revels in these complications. Viola does not. Viola isn’t Rosalind, loved and in love, delighting in the freedom of her disguise and knowing she can drop it at any time (in the forest at least).

Viola triggers a lot of comedy but does not crack a lot of jokes. It seems to me that the comedy in Twelfth Night works along a spectrum of self-knowledge with the most self-deceived at one end (Malvolio, Aguecheek), whose idiocy we laugh at, and at the other, the most self-aware, Viola (the only character on stage aware of her real identity), whose wit we laugh with. We laugh at Orsino, who is blinded by love, and at Olivia, who is blind to her vanity in mourning, and at both of them, who are blind to the fact that Cesario is a girl. Sebastian, the ‘drowned’ brother, walks into a chaos he cannot make head or tail of, and we laugh at his confusion. We wryly laugh with Feste, the all-knowing fool, and with Maria, the traditional cunning maid, and we uncomfortably laugh with Belch, who thinks he knows it all and revels in exploiting other people’s weakness.

Although Viola is the most knowing in one way, she is on totally unfamiliar ground (physically and emotionally), and this is a source of comedy for the all-knowing audience.


LADY MACBETH – Macbeth, 1999

Lady Macbeth

As Lady Macbeth with Antony Sher (Macbeth); Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, 1999
(© Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale/RSC)

I suspect that if you were to ask the person-in-the-street what they knew of Lady Macbeth, most who knew anything would say something like ‘She’s the one who persuades her husband to kill the King…’ But I was finding indications in the text that Lady M does not put the idea of killing the King into her husband’s head, it is already there. There is a huge but subtle difference between coercing a totally upright person to commit a crime and working on the wavering will of someone who already wants to commit that crime but fears the consequences. I was not out to clear Lady Macbeth’s name, but I wanted to straighten a few facts.

Shakespeare repeatedly uses the image of planting, and it is an apt one. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are caught at a moment of ripeness and preparedness for evil. The witches are agents of this evil, and for that reason they do not seek out Banquo, who proves less fertile soil, but Macbeth. Lady Macbeth understands her husband as well as the witches do and builds on the work they have begun. She herself never kills, but if she had let well alone, Macbeth would not have acted. That is the considerable extent of her blame.

I had already scoured the text for any insights into Lady Macbeth as an individual, separate from her husband, but except for the odd ‘most kind hostess’ or ‘fair and noble hostess’ from the King, no one comments on her or throws any light on her character. Nobody seems to know her. She has no confidante. Her world is confined to the castle and its servants, but it was hard for my imagination to people the place or fill it with domestic goings-on. A Lady Macbeth busying herself with the housekeeping or taking tea with a circle of friends just did not ring true. It did not ring true because Shakespeare’s creation only exists within the time-frame of the play. It was as though she had visited Shakespeare’s imagination fully formed, giving away no secrets, and therein lies a lot of her power.


CLEOPATRA – Antony and Cleopatra, 2006

Cleopatra

As Cleopatra; Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (© Pascal Molliere/RSC)

How do you approach playing a woman who reputedly stops the heart and eclipses the reason of every man she meets? Who has Julius Caesar eating out of the palm of her hand? To me Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mata Hari, the erotic, black-eyed woman on Edwardian postcards, impossible for me to get near. However, once I did my research, I found that nowhere in the play or in any historical account is Cleopatra described as beautiful. In fact any existing images of her make her look rather heavy-browed and long-nosed. Hooray! Yes, but on second thoughts not hooray because that meant she managed to pull the men despite not being beautiful. That means she possessed some indefinable sexual ingredient, the X-factor which you either have or have not got and which is something beyond the art of acting.

What I did have were Shakespeare’s words, and they became my largest sexual attribute. They say the brain is the largest sex organ in the body, and her words were of infinite variety. Playful, grandiose, self-dramatising, switchback, heart-breaking, infuriating and unpredictable. I knew that my best chance of convincing an audience that men might fall at my Cleopatra’s feet would be to get behind those words, the switches of mood, the reach of her imagery, the energy and the emotion to be inferred from her rhythms. And if I could bring all that off the page and on to the stage, I wouldn’t need to fulfil every man’s fantasy with my physique or some ‘X’ ingredient. Getting behind those words would be a tough enough task, but at least it was one that could be worked at, whereas one’s physical attributes are more immutable.

What I also had was the real experience of a woman on the cusp of old age, with all the contradictions that presents. On the one hand still in touch with a youthful energy and physicality, and on the other the consciousness that, as I joked at the time, ‘this may be the last time I play the love interest’. Both Patrick Stewart, who played Antony, and I are fairly fit and athletic—which I am rarely required to demonstrate—so we both used that quality of physical energy and enjoyment wherever we could, and indeed I haven’t had and don’t expect to have another chance to run around the stage barefoot or ever again to leap into a stage lover’s arms.


HENRY IV – Henry IV, 2014

Henry IV

As King Henry IV; Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (© Helen Maybanks)

I have to confess to having rather enjoyed strutting and striding and puffing out my chest. I suspect that many men enjoy it too. I have watched those sorts of men all my life, never thinking I would need those observations for an acting job. Since I was very young I have been able to watch someone and imagine myself inside them, moving their limbs, striking their poses and by some strange mechanism, getting an inkling as to their feelings and thoughts. I’m sure everyone has something of this ability, but it is particularly developed in actors. It is hard to explain how it’s done because it is not a systematised process; it is just part of our equipment. It means that we can ‘channel’ someone from real life who matches the character we are playing.

As Henry, I channelled two or three different men (not the men themselves but their acting personae). For obvious reasons I had never had cause to channel Ray Winstone before, but I did now. Another model was Tom Bell; another was the guy from the film A Prophet, Niels Arestrup. If you know any of these actors, you will understand I was not striving to be a lookalike, but somehow, by keeping them in my mind’s eye, I could borrow some useful quality of theirs: the stillness that accompanies physical power, the prowling pace of a man keeping his violence in check, the spread-limbed arrogance of those men on the tube who occupy two seats and leave you squished up in the corner.

It is a bit of a cliché to say it, but in many ways we are all acting. We have all been trained up in our physicality and raised within gender conventions that restrict us. The experiment of being a woman playing a man produced in me a hybrid that surprised me and released me from myself. That is what a lot of actors love best about the whole game—the escape from the limits of the package we are wrapped in. I suspect many non-actors are looking for the same.


Brutus and Other HeroinesThese edited extracts are taken from Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women by Harriet Walter, out now. To buy your copy for just £10.39, visit the Nick Hern Books website.

Harriet Walter stars in the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy – playing Brutus in Julius Caesar, Henry IV in Henry IV, and Prospero in The Tempest – at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 17 December.

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