Harriet Walter: Shakespeare’s Gender Politics

Edinburgh International Book Festival

On 27 August 2017

Review by David Chadderton

Chaired by Jackie McGlone, this event focussed on Harriet Walter's performances on stage of Shakespeare, including her famous recent performances of leading male roles in the Donmar Warehouse productions directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

She said she was approached by theatrical publisher Nick Hern to write a book on performing Shakespeare five years ago with no deadline, which she said was fatal, but then in the year of Shakespeare anniversary celebrations he nudged her to say this may be a good time to release it.

Although a feminist by nature, she said the way she works is not revolutionary or provocative but she wants to gently bring people around to her way of thinking in rehearsals. She said she would not necessarily want to make the character likeable but to understand where she is coming from.

She said you can be lazy with Shakespeare as he has done all the work for you, using language like a composer uses notes, but he gives you knots to untie in the language, working out why he used a particular word. She compared this to her work on the TV series Law and Order, where the scripts offer no such challenges.

Playing the role of Cleopatra gave her a thirst for playing a character that drives the play, but she still saw it as a risk when Lloyd approached her to play Brutus in Julius Caesar. She said directors can take choices as once the production opens they can go off and do something else, but actors are left exposed for eight shows a week until the end of the run.

The pretext of the production was that it was set in a women's prison, which liberated the audience from wondering whether they were playing men or women as they were clearly women playing men. Danger is something not experienced by middle class actors, so it also gave them the characters of the prisoners, who knew what it would be like to wield a knife, to get into the danger of Shakespeare's characters.

They were told to use their own accents, which meant that she had to work out why someone as well-spoken as herself would be in prison, and also give her something of the character of Brutus. She decided on making her a political prisoner, and had a real-life model in the US.

She said that if she had been on stage with men, she would have felt weaker as her voice is naturally higher and she would look "punier", but being in an all-women cast allowed her to feel stronger.

Harriet Walter's book Brutus and Other Heroines—Playing Shakespeare's Roles for Women covers both her male and female Shakespearean roles and is out now in paperback.