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Dateline: 16th November, 2006

Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra
Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra, with Patrick Stewart

Actress Curates RSC Exhibition

Harriet Walter, who is this season playing Cleopatra in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Antony and Cleopatra (which opens at London’s Novello Theatre in London on 11th January, 2007) has curated an exhibition of images of older women, Infinite Variety, which takes its title from a line in the play: "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety". The women's ages range from 48–95.

The forty images which have been carefully selected by Harriet range from the famous - Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, Charlotte Rampling and Jane Birkin, Una Stubbs, Joan Bakewell, Mary Quant, Annie Lennox and the The Duchess of Cornwal - , to the not so famous - friends, friends of friends and people spotted in the street.

The exhibition runs in the dress circle bar of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from 2nd December 2006 until February 2007. Harriet has worked closely with photographer Jill Kennington Courtauld on this project. Jill was a top model in the 1960s who later switched to photography, and the exhibition includes nine of her photographs.

‘I want to celebrate the experience of age,’ says Harriet Walter, ‘its interesting signs in the face, and to open people’s eyes and tastes towards seeing the infinite variety of beauty in ageing and aged faces.

‘When I hit my teens in the 60s, images of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, Francoise Hardy and Jane Asher smothered the pages of glossy magazines. At this most impressionable age, these icons did their work of imprinting an aspiration, a yardstick by which to measure my own image. This was the power of photography. As I hit my fifties I could find few, if any, photographic images of women to emulate.

‘The basis of this exhibition flows in part from my role as Cleopatra in the RSC production of Antony and Cleopatra, which I am playing at the age of 55.

‘The beauty that is generally celebrated in the media is narrow and skin deep. The challenge is to get people to look and re-condition their criteria for beauty; to make older women happier within their own skin and to give younger women something to aspire to other than the surgical knife.

‘With all the surgical expertise in the world we cannot be as beautifully young as the young, so why try? Why not celebrate the gains in depth, personality and individuality? Why not learn to love grey, silver and delicately etched lines, even saggy pouches. Why not embrace the transitions, the contradictions layered into a lived in face? Why not allow ourselves to feel tenderness for our vulnerability to age and to death?

‘I am learning to love the ageing female faces, and along with so many men and women I have spoken to, I abhor the lack of confidence, the fear of natural ageing that has led so many men and women to freeze their faces into a botoxed, ironed out mask of looks to me like nothing less that startled fear. This particularly strikes me as an actress who needs maximum facial mobility for my job.’

The images are by a variety of photographers, including Jill Kennington, Georgia Oetka, Avedon and Boo Beaumont.

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©Peter Lathan 2006