Harriet Walter (The Nick Hern Books Anniversary Interviews)

Nick Hern Books is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary in 2018. To mark the occasion, we’ve commissioned interviews with some of our leading authors and playwrights. First up, theatre journalist Al Senter talks to Dame Harriet Walter…

Actor Harriet Walter has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, including playing almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines on the stage. As she ruefully points out in her latest book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, she has reached a point in her career where she has exhausted the supply of mature female roles in the Shakespeare canon. Where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death?

Then, as she recounts in the book, the director Phyllida Lloyd came to her with the idea of an all-female Shakespeare season at the Donmar Warehouse. Committing herself to this experiment, Harriet played Brutus in Lloyd’s production of Julius Caesar in 2012, followed by the title role in Henry IV (a condensed version combining both parts, which opened at the Donmar in 2014), and then Prospero in The Tempest in 2016.

It was a journey into previously uncharted territory, but it clearly paid off when the three plays, performed together as the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar’s temporary theatre in King’s Cross in 2016, was met with resounding critical acclaim, hailed by the Observer’s critic as ‘one of the most important theatrical events of the past twenty years’.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

Did such a positive response from the public and the profession surprise her? ‘Definitely,’ replies Harriet. ‘I initially expected a lot more hostility – even ridicule. But from the kick-off, we received wonderful reactions. If there were some dissenters back in 2012, by the time we moved on to the second and third play, we had built up a great following. And certainly among younger people, men and women, there was a feeling of “Women playing men? What’s the problem?”‘.

‘Most of the people I have heard from have said that they felt inspired and liberated by our productions,’ Harriet continues. ‘They told me that they had seen the plays in a completely fresh light and that there was a great significance to the work, beyond providing an evening’s entertainment. They also felt that the shows had marked a huge cultural shift in the world at large. I hope that doesn’t sound over-reaching.’

Naturally not everybody was sympathetic to what Harriet, Lloyd and the other members of the company were trying to achieve.

‘There are people, of course, who simply hate the idea of women playing men; but they mostly didn’t come to see the productions,’ reports Harriet. ‘Those that did come grudgingly at first often said that they were pleasantly surprised. I know that we usually only hear from people who have enjoyed the play. Those who haven’t liked it tend not to say anything, so I am well aware that we didn’t convert everybody. However, I’d argue that the strength of the reaction from young people outweighs the more negative reactions.’

Harriet Walter as King Henry IV in Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse, 2014 (photo by Helen Maybanks)

It could be argued that such experiments in gender-blind casting work best in period plays with a historical setting, where the characters, the language and locations are already at one remove from our own. Can a non-naturalistic approach to gender in casting work just as well in the staging of contemporary plays as it has done in Shakespeare?

‘This I am not so sure about,’ replies Harriet. ‘I think that it is more important to get new writers to create 360-degree female characters in new plays. The nature of Shakespeare’s plays depends more on the actors’ ability to live through language and communicate some universal truths that have not changed since Shakespeare’s day and don’t depend on naturalistic casting. The modern classics – the plays of Pinter and Beckett – belong in very specific worlds, created in the imaginations of those playwrights, and there would be complex arguments about the pros and cons of altering the gender of any of the characters. Change one brick and a lot of the meaning comes tumbling down. People need to be very clear on the reasons for changing the gender of a role – or the gender of the actor playing it. The important thing is that each production has a coherent motive for its casting scheme and that things are not done just for the sake of being trendy or different. It is important not to confuse an audience. If the casting lacks coherence, audiences can sniff it out and become alienated very quickly.’

Given her long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a working life steeped in Shakespeare, Harriet must feel a certain kinship with the playwright. Does she sense that he liked women?

‘It’s hard to be sure. I think that in general he loved them and was fascinated by them. He gave them many of the best insights – the most witty and wise arguments. But he also had some of the main characters express the sexist prejudices of the age – that women were fickle, vengeful or feeble. Whether he himself agreed with those voices is hard to say. He was human and he lived at a particular time.’

Harriet Walter at Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006 (photo by Pascal Molliere, © RSC)

For the moment, Harriet has a busy schedule, meeting her various film and television commitments, and you get the feeling that it will take something special to tempt her back to the stage.

‘At the moment, I’m very happy being in the audience watching things that I wouldn’t necessarily want to do myself. I want to do work that will break boundaries, and I want to keep going and be permanently challenged in what I do.’

In her professional life, Harriet has a fear of becoming stuck, like a musical instrument that plays the same notes over and over again. In a sense, her ground-breaking work with Phyllida Lloyd enabled her to find a different tune. But she has also challenged herself repeatedly as an author: her book Other People’s Shoes is an elegant analysis of what an actor is and does, while Facing It is a series of reflections on images of older women whose faces and lives have inspired her.

Actors, self-evidently, have other people’s words with which to go to war, so it must be a daunting task to have to invent your own.

‘I’m not saying that acting is easy, compared with writing, but you do develop a skill that reminds you that you know how to do it. And after you have reached the age of fifty, you feel the need to challenge yourself. I think we can all get a bit complacent at that age.’

Has she any further writing plans?

‘I enjoy writing but I think I need a break from writing about work,’ she reveals. ‘Perhaps I should try fiction. I have less reason to think I could do that, but I’m tempted to try.’

You heard it here first!


Harriet Walter’s Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women is published by Nick Hern Books in paperback and ebook formats.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website.

Look out for more Anniversary Interviews and promotions coming soon. Subscribe to our newsletter now to make sure you don’t miss out!

Author photograph by Georgia Oetker.

 

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Michael Bruce: How I became a theatre composer

Michael Bruce is a prolific theatre composer whose music has accompanied plays at the National Theatre, in the West End and on Broadway. He has written scores and songs for productions as varied as The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Candide for the RSC, Strange Interlude and Man and Superman at the National Theatre, and Coriolanus, Privacy and The Physicists at the Donmar Warehouse, where he is Composer-in-Residence. The job is endlessly diverse and you can never rest on your laurels, as he explains in this extract from his new book, Writing Music for the Stage – published here with audio clips from several of his theatre scores.

When people ask me how I started to write music for plays, they are often surprised by the sheer extent of happenstance and luck that led me down this particular road. I don’t think I’m unusual in that I didn’t set out to write music for plays. After teaching myself the piano as a child, I longed for a career in songwriting: pop music primarily and then later musical theatre. I went to a performing arts college (Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) to study music and for the first couple of years only occasionally participated in any theatre activities. Even when I did decide to concentrate my efforts on musical theatre it never occurred to me that there might be a world of plays out there that required composers. In fact, it took me a long time to even call myself a composer – I was a songwriter; the word ‘composer’ seemed far too hifalutin. In my secondary-school music class, composition was called ‘inventing’ (presumably because we couldn’t possibly declare the music we were sweating out as ‘composition’). No, that required formal music education in a building with a royal crest on the front of it – surely?

The truth is, concert works, musicals, films, albums all seem to be much more glamorous and financially rewarding (although they often aren’t) than writing music for plays. Composition in the ‘straight theatre’ can act as a training ground for any of those projects, but it is frequently wholly satisfying in itself. Plays, more than any other compositional work, demand a strong multi-purpose technique, openness for collaboration, an eclectic knowledge and a keen interest in storytelling. If you’re going to write music for plays, you need to be able to turn your hand to almost anything musically and because of that, the people who do compose music for the theatre get there by a myriad of different pathways and circumstances. Many Oscar-winning composers still write music for theatre in between film projects. As you might expect, there is no tried-and-tested route to becoming a theatre composer.

two-gentlemen-Simon Annand

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2014, directed by Simon Godwin (photo by Simon Annand)

 

As a young composer in London, having previously served as an assistant musical director, I was busy writing small-scale musical theatre and cabaret when I received a last-minute call to participate in a podcast discussion about new musical theatre. A contemporary of mine who was meant to be on the panel became unavailable at the last minute and for some reason (I can’t remember why now) they called me. On the panel was a representative from the Arts Council who was very intrigued by the mention of an idea for a ‘composer-in-residence’ scheme. He later asked me to carry on the discussion over coffee. From what seemed like out of nowhere he managed to procure me an invitation to visit the Bush Theatre with a view to becoming their first composer-in-residence.

The Bush Theatre is a world-leading new-writing powerhouse and it became my home for the next two years. Yes, I wrote a musical there, but even more fascinating was my introduction to a world of drama I had neglected to embrace. There has been a tendency amongst some musical-theatre writers (and I was one of them) to become engrossed in an insular musical-theatre world, when right next door there is an entire industry of playwrights and directors putting on world-class productions of plays. I think it’s exceedingly important that artists get as broad a spectrum of inspiration and education as possible, and one of the best places to get that is at the theatre.

After forming many friendships and professional relationships at the Bush I was offered a job as composer-in-residence at the Donmar Warehouse. It was my relationship with Josie Rourke, the artistic director of both of those institutions, that led me to writing music for plays in the first place. In doing that, I have been fortunate enough to work steadily with some of the leading directors and playwrights, in the leading theatres, with the leading actors, ever since. The capacity for learning whilst working on these kinds of jobs with these kinds of people is unparalleled. You can never rest on your laurels when scoring plays, because you never know what the next moment will call for. You can’t just churn out the same thing every time because you are being constantly challenged to respond to the specific needs of the production. This is the best training you could ask for.

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Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill, National Theatre, 2013, directed by Simon Godwin

 

Directors are the people who usually have the power to hire composers. A director will specify their preferred creative team to a producer or producing theatre who can, in turn, suggest their own ideas. Sometimes a producer might question the employment of someone who perhaps is untested in the theatrical forum, but mostly, if a director trusts in a composer to deliver, the producer will back him up. Meeting directors may seem like a tricky thing to set up, but your best bet is to start working on small projects either at school, in college or in your local community and invite people to see your work. If you’ve got the option to watch a lot of theatre, then do so. To some extent this is harder if you don’t live in London or don’t have lots of spare cash to burn, but there are great regional theatres around the country producing top-quality work. Also, don’t forget that cinema broadcasts of theatre productions make them far more accessible on a budget from wherever you are in the world. Absorb all the influences you can: get to know which directors’ work you enjoy and write to them. You could even send a director a demo or two. What’s the worst that could happen?

Joshua McGuire in Privacy Photo by Johan Persson 5

Privacy by James Graham, Donmar Warehouse 2014, directed by Josie Rourke (photo by Johan Persson)

 

The most important thing to do is to get some experience on your CV. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a town hall or on Broadway. If you can show some proclivity for hard work, directors are much more likely to take you seriously. Take every job going and turn your hand to as many styles of music as you can. Even after years of working I still have difficulty turning things down: I am constantly thrilled when someone decides they would like me to write the music for their show. Never take anything for granted. The number of weird and wonderful jobs I took on as a young composer and musical director is still staggering to me now. From the cramped and seedy nightclubs of Soho to commercials for car insurance, there’s something to learn from every experience, so no matter how far from your desired path a music job might seem, you should take it on, make the most of it and feel proud to be earning a pay cheque.

You will meet new people every time you take on a new project, and you never know where those relationships might lead. Always remember that the theatre industry is small: contacts are vital to keep your workload ticking over and you never know who might come to see your latest offering or what new opportunities lie right around the corner.


FormattedExtracted from Writing Music for the Stage: A Practical Guide for Theatremakers by Michael Bruce, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘A good score makes a world of difference to an actor. Read Michael Bruce’s book and you’ll understand why. He is a genius.’ Judi Dench

To buy your copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), click here.

For more excerpts from Michael Bruce’s theatre scores, visit the Nick Hern Books SoundCloud page here.

Author photo by Steven McIntosh.