Brutus and Other Heroines
Nick Hern Books
The fact that she is a Dame suggests that Harriet Walter has enjoyed a long and fruitful career.
In this delightful canter, her career is measured by the landmarks of Shakespearean productions. As one might expect from such a distinguished performer, Dame Harriet has played a good number of the usual suspects, although somewhere along the way she missed out on Juliet and has not yet done the history plays (as a woman).
However, by way of compensation and late in her career, the actress had the good fortune to meet up with Phyllida Lloyd at a point where she and the Donmar were considering an all-female version of Julius Caesar. That eventually became a trilogy, which will be completed at King’s Cross Theatre when Prospero joins Henry IV and Brutus in the Walter CV.
As she identifies throughout the 210 pages of this volume, Shakespeare did few favours to actresses, in part because they did not exist in his day, boys playing the female parts.
This had various consequences, for example there are not many good roles for women in the canon, even fewer for those of mature years and, as a general rule, the parts that there are tend to be defined by their menfolk.
Even so, this actress has enjoyed a long and memorable career playing a series of Shakespearean heroines, latterly heroes and the odd bad egg.
The book is actually a series of essays on Shakespearean topics with a feminist slant. Each is based on a single character running chronologically through her career, and along the way presents a somewhat selective autobiography.
Dame Harriet’s first brush with Shakespeare came opposite Jonathan Pryce as Ophelia for the future Sir Richard Eyre at the Royal Court, a reminder of the days when that theatre went beyond the realms of new writing and could even contemplate putting on Hamlet.
She has great fun talking about her experiences playing girls playing boys as Portia, Viola and Imogen.
However, perhaps the three strongest and most detailed essays cover productions directed by Greg Doran. The first of these featured her Lady Macbeth played opposite Sir Antony Sher, then Beatrice with Nicholas le Prevost and finally Cleopatra in the company of Sir Patrick Stewart.
These essays are intelligent, entertaining and informative in their own right for general readers but along with almost everything else in this publication should provide much food for thought both for aspiring actresses (not to mention, in the latter stages, actors) and directors.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher