My friend Jacob spotted Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, by Harriet Walter, at a bookstore and snagged it for me. I hadn’t heard of it, although I have been following Walter’s recent work with much interest, particularly her trilogy of all-female productions of Shakespeare.
This book is less a retrospective memoir than a collection of writing from throughout Walter’s career about various roles she has played. Although she edited the older essays for this book she lets her authentic younger voice speak for herself. One thing I appreciated was her empathy for her younger self. I often hear people talk about the work they did decades ago in a way that devalues it. She clearly has grown and developed as an artist since her first roles, but she doesn’t put down that early work.
Early in her career, Walter played three different “pants roles” in a year–Viola, Imogen, and Portia. Her essay on playing these roles one after another was a brilliant look into an actor’s process. She noted that the danger with these roles would be the temptation to play them all similarly. She finds the difference between them in examining their reasons for crossdressing–what do they gain by disguising themselves as men? It turns out, they all get quite different things from hiding their femininity, and these differences unlocked each of the roles for Walter.
Her essay on playing Lady Macbeth (opposite Anthony Sher and directed by Greg Doran) is a brilliant look at the potential for discovery in the collaboration between actors. She writes about approaching a problem with Sher, discussing it, considering and testing possibilities, and finally landing on an answer that worked for them, for the specifics of their chemistry and their personal energies. Her Lady Macbeth would have been different with a different scene partner; this is what collaboration means.
I was the most interested–of course–in her writing on Cleopatra. It surprised me, in that I disagreed with a lot of what she said. My read on the character is just very different from hers–I think she underestimates the Queen of Egypt as a politician and a force of nature. But when she wrote about the climactic scenes of Antony’s and Cleopatra’s deaths, I was completely in agreement with her.
She writes that she performed Cleopatra only a year and a half after her partner died, and as hard as that sounds, she writes, “What a therapeutic gift to have such poetry in my head and my heart every night.”
I wanted to know more about her Cleopatra, although this essay is one of the longer ones in the book. I could have read a whole book on it.
She played the Duchess of Malfi some time before, and, because that’s Webster, it was outside of the scope of this book. I had to wonder, though, whether she had noticed the same connections between Cleopatra and the Duchess that I had. I also wanted to know more about something that she tosses off in a parenthetical comment–apparently Greg Doran sometimes made her do the final scene with an actual snake. When I think of the trouble we went to getting a rubber snake to land where we needed it, I can’t imagine doing that with a snake that might actually slither away.
I was also intrigued with her production of Julius Caesar, the one where she played Brutus, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. I’m always interested in productions of shows that I’ve directed, of course, but most especially when they share some key production element with mine. When I directed it in 2009 at Pigeon Creek Shakespeare, we did an all-female production. “Before it was cool,” as we like to say–it seems that many prominent theaters have done this since. For us, the decision felt natural. We chose to cast it with female actors because we had lots of great women, and these are some brilliant roles. People who didn’t see the show had lots of questions about this–how did we explain that they were women? Did we change it to “Julia Caesar”? But nobody who actually saw it seemed to have any issues with it at all. We played the characters as male, but the actors playing them were women. Much as how we have actors playing kings who are decidedly commoners, or actors playing murderers who have incredibly sweet souls. Choosing to cast the show this way did highlight certain lines that I hadn’t ever noticed before–how many times these men say things like, “You have grown womanish!” But I never felt that we needed to make an excuse for their being women.
Interestingly, this may be a generational difference more than anything else. Walter writes about working with Lloyd to come up with a reason that women would be performing this play. They decided to set it in a women’s prison, and as research, they spent some time in such prisons. They built the interruptions of prison life–blaring speakers, complete lack of privacy, limited access to materials–into the production. Each of the actors created a prison persona that somehow connected to her character in the play. By all accounts, it was a brilliant production, and I wish I could have seen it. The cast ended up being quite diverse in age, ethnicity, and Shakespeareance. On the question of gender:
I discovered that one or two of the very youngest members of the cast had a sort of “What’s the problem?” attitude which I found very helpful. It seemed that their generation were already blurring the edges between genders, classes, and races, and had not bought into the cultural segregation that the older ones had grown up with.
I do wonder if this experience will help Harriet Walter discover what’s next for her. She writes about having “run out of road” for roles in Shakespeare–once you’ve played Cleopatra, how many older women are there? But who says she can only play old people? After all, Brutus isn’t supposed to be an old person. He would have been in his early 40s, historically (Cleopatra, incidentally, only lived to be 39, but no one seems to remember or care–we just think of that as a role for an older actor). Brutus is often played younger. I guess my point is, if she could, at 63, play a 40-something man, why couldn’t she play just about anything? She’s not a man, she’s not in her 40s, but nobody seemed bothered about the age issue there. For some characters, their age matters a great deal, but the canon is full of people whose age is not all that significant, on some level.
I’ve done a barely adequate job of pointing to the many fascinating treasures this book has to offer–I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in Shakespeare, acting, or just how things are created.