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Harriet Walter on Brutus and Other Heroines | reviews, news & interviews

Harriet Walter on Brutus and Other Heroines

Harriet Walter on Brutus and Other Heroines

The great actress introduces her new book about playing Shakespeare

'I can impose a retrospective shape on a life that was experienced in a more blinkered present tense'Georgia Oetker

A part we have played is like a person we once met, grew to know, became intimately enmeshed with and finally moved away from. Some of these characters remain friends, others are like ex-lovers with whom we no longer have anything in common. All of them bring something out in us that will never go back in the box.

In my new book, Brutus and Other Heroines, I write about the major Shakespeare characters I have played. This sometimes involved revisiting pieces I had written much earlier in my life and my career, and doing this was a bit like looking back through old diaries with a mixture of affection and embarrassment. In reworking these pieces, I deliberately preserved references that place our productions in a particular time, and I stuck to the original thoughts I was wanting to convey, even if that meant exposing the naivety or idealism of my younger self.

The last chapters of the book deal with still-current roles: the male protagonists in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Shakespeare trilogy for the Donmar Warehouse. At the time of writing, we are reviving the two plays we have already performed (Julius Caesar and Henry IV) and are rehearsing the third (The Tempest). Here, the writing task is different. Obviously there is no difficulty in recalling details, but instead I have to step back, freeze the still flowing ideas about a part, and attempt to crystallise something that will have changed by the time you read this.

Many people suppose that we actors just have very vivid imaginations that carry us away until we believe we are someone else, and that all we then have to do is to remember the lines and not bump into the furniture. What is less understood is how we build a character through interpreting the text, and how we bring that character to life in collaboration with the director and the rest of the cast.

Much of acting work is about choices: the choices of interpretation and emphasis in rehearsing a role, and the minute-to-minute choices we make in response to an audience in performance. My choices will never be the same as someone else’s, and if there were a right way and a wrong way to play a part we would all try to copy some "definitive" performance, and life would be very dull. So the book is not intended as a blueprint to be followed to the letter, but I hope that it shows the sort of questions an actor needs to ask him- or herself in preparing a role, and how Shakespeare’s text can be excavated for clues to support several interpretations. The important thing is that the character should be coherent with the play and production that surrounds it.

Two things happened to encourage me to write about playing Shakespeare. One was that, during my first seasons at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s, there existed a strong connection between the company and the Shakespeare Institute, a department of Birmingham University, based in Stratford-upon-Avon. They introduced the now totally accepted idea that, since Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed and watched rather than studied, the players could make a valid contribution to the analysis of his works.

Secondly, around that same time, myself and four other leading actresses were interviewed by Professor Carol Rutter of Warwick University for her book Clamorous Voices. She was interested in gathering the reactions and opinions of a generation of actresses who were bringing a new feminist experience to the famous female roles. I had taken my feminism for granted, not really knowing how these roles had been interpreted before, and Carol’s book encouraged me to believe there was something fresh I could bring to the discussion.

Brutus and Other Heroines is not an academic book, nor is it a practical handbook. It is more personal than both of those. Perhaps it is a kind of autobiography in that it journeys from my thoughts as a 30-year-old who understood the vulnerability of Ophelia, gaining confidence and complexity through my thirties and forties with Helena, Viola, Portia and Lady Macbeth, to a more relaxed, womanly Beatrice and Cleopatra in my fifties, and onward to finding new territory in the male roles in my sixties. As with any autobiography, I can impose a retrospective shape on a life that was experienced in a more blinkered present tense. Perhaps it is my attempt to lay down a record of an art form that is only true in the moment of performance.

'Brutus and Other Heroines' is not an academic book, nor is it a practical handbook. It is more personal than both of those

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