chapter  20
14 Pages

Harriet Walter: Paul Edmondson


Her hands are spotted and splashed with blood. She looks at them and says ‘O, God’, and breaks off. Clasping her hands to her breast and breathing in deeply, she stoops to wash them, quickly, furtively. It is as if they will never be clean again. She rubs them with a handkerchief and looks quickly around. Her mouth is open in disgust, but her expression changes to relief with a different, practical focus. This almost wordless sequence lasts thirty-six seconds. This is not Lady Macbeth. Not yet. It is a moment from a B.B.C. dramatisation of

Dorothy L. Sayers’s Have His Carcase directed by Christopher Hodson in 1986. Harriet Vane discovers the body lying abandoned on a rock. For Harriet Walter, who portrayed her namesake over three series, Lady Macbeth would follow thirteen years later, but her reputation as a Shakespeare actor was already established. In this short sequence her own Shakespearian preferences and reputation are mapped on to classic crime drama. Here readers will find a synoptic view of a highly intelligent and self-conscious

performer. How does she turn Shakespeare’s words into a live event? How does she speak and move? How does she prepare for a Shakespearian role and what does she seek to bring to it? What is it like watching her act moment by moment in Shakespeare? I was able to work with her on a speech of Rosalind’s in As You Like It, a role she has not played, and I quote freely from private interviews, giving references only to published quotations. Descriptions of performance are based on my own memories (except All’s Well That Ends Well) and the Royal Shakespeare Company archive videos available for consultation in The Shakespeare Centre Library in Stratfordupon-Avon. Shakespeare is cited from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (1986; 2nd edn 2005). She finished her training at The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in

1973. Her Shakespearian roles began on the professional stage in 1980 with Ophelia for Richard Eyre at The Royal Court. That was also the year she joined The Royal Shakespeare Company as Madeleine Bray and, as she recalls, ‘every fifth bonnet’ in David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. The following year, she was cast as Helena in Ron Daniels’s R.S.C. production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was a personally significant breakthrough, not least because it was her first experience of having to project her voice in a large auditorium. She was grateful to come under the influence of voice expert Cicely Berry who helped with her vocal pitch, projection,

and control: ‘she taught me not to listen to my voice but to feel it’ (Other People’s Shoes, p.156). But she admits to being disappointed by the reviews. Although a breakthrough, Helena meant engaging with knockabout farce, ‘not my forte. I was better at playing fragile, broken people.’ That same season (1981-83) saw her playing Lady Percy in Henry IV Parts One and

Two and another Shakespearian Helena for Trevor Nunn in All’s Well That Ends Well. Peggy Ashcroft was playing the Countess, and the production transferred to Broadway. Film, television and other stage work (including Aphra Behn, Anton Chekhov,

and Harold Pinter) took up the next four years and she returned to the Shakespearian stage as Portia in The Merchant of Venice at The Royal Exchange, Manchester, directed by Braham Murray (1987). Another R.S.C. season followed (1987-89) as Viola in Twelfth Night (for which she won the Olivier Award) and Imogen in Cymbeline, followed by the Duchess of Malfi (1989-90), all directed by Bill Alexander. Theatre, television drama, and film took up most of the next decade (including a memorable portrayal of the caustic Fanny in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee in 1995), until she made her return to the R.S.C. as Lady Macbeth in 1999, directed by Gregory Doran (filmed in 2000 for Channel 4). There followed Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing (R.S.C., 2002) and Cleopatra (R.S.C., 2006), both directed by Doran. In 2005 her performance as Elizabeth I in Schiller’s Mary Stuart (directed by Phyllida Lloyd for the Donmar Warehouse) won her the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress and Olivier and Tony Award nominations. The production was revived for Broadway in 2009. Audio recordings of Shakespeare include Tamora in Titus Andronicus and Lady Macbeth (with a Scottish accent) for The Arkangel Shakespeare and Goneril in King Lear (opposite Paul Scofield as Lear) for The Cambridge Shakespeare, under the Naxos label. She has published several accounts of her work. There is an essay on her performance as Imogen for Players of Shakespeare 3 (1993), and she produced a longer essay on playing Lady Macbeth for Faber and Faber’s ‘Actors on Shakespeare’ series in 2002. Her book, Other People’s Shoes: Thoughts on Acting first appeared in 1999 and has been reissued several times. She is an intellectually and politically engaged performer who is able compellingly

to articulate her process and preparations for a role, and the reasons for her interpretative choices. Gregory Doran stands out as one of her favourite directors of Shakespeare with whom she has worked on three R.S.C. productions because ‘he puts Shakespeare first, rather than his own directorial angle, and wants to release the plays from the page through the actors’ equipment and imagination’. Walter was one of Carol Rutter’s Clamorous Voices in 1988, ‘a generation of clas-

sical actresses newly empowered by the women’s movement to question the structures and systems they worked under, and the role of the female both on and off the stage’ (New Theatre Quarterly, p. 112). Twenty-six years on from Clamorous Voices, Walter still feels that too often female actors are not given the same kind of attention or treatment in the rehearsal room as men. She thinks that some male directors are at their least less successful when directing women. She encountered feminism in the same year as she started drama school. Her own

political ideology makes her determined to find the humanity in a role that will

speak to herself and others from her own position as a modern woman. She describes her fundamental approach to performance like this:

Acting is what I do with who I am. That ‘who I am’ is in constant dynamic relationship with the world and people around me, the plays I do, and the parts I play, so it is not only a question of bringing what I know to a character, but also of opening myself to learn from the character via the insight of the writer.