X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week. If you receive it, you’ll also find your subscriber number at the top of our weekly highlights email.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.spectator.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050. If you’ve only just subscribed, you may not yet have been issued with a subscriber number. In this case you can use the temporary web ID number, included in your email order confirmation.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

If you have any difficulties creating an account or logging in please take a look at our FAQs page.

Books

Harriet Walter’s gentle reproach to Shakespeare

No wonder women are increasingly after the great male roles, she says. Shakespeare gave all his best lines to men

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women Harriet Walter

Nick Hern Books, pp.210, £12.99

A few years ago, I fell hopelessly in love with Harriet Walter. It only lasted an hour or two: she was playing Brutus in Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar, and there she was, aloof, damaged, burning with pride and suppressed sorrow.

The Donmar theatre’s production was set in a women’s prison, as if performed by inmates. In Walter’s mind, we learn in her latest book, she was not playing white, older, educated Brutus, but ‘Hannah’, a long-term prisoner whose presence in the jail she based on the story of Judith Clark, an anti-capitalist revolutionary imprisoned for driving the getaway car at a fatal bank robbery. It is a rare moment of political predictability in an acting memoir otherwise notable for its focused scrutiny of Shakespeare’s language.

Walter’s 2012 turn as Brutus has become cult theatre — it turns out that my crush was far from unique. This winter, the Donmar has revived the production as part of a trilogy with Lloyd’s 2014 Henry IV, in which Walter plays the title role, and a new production of The Tempest, giving her a chance to tackle Prospero. The results are electric; an extraordinary success for British theatre’s new addiction to mixing up gender in performance. It’s a disappointment, then, that Brutus and Other Heroines focuses less on this achievement and more on Walter’s history of, well, more traditional Shakespearian heroines. There’s plenty on gender, less on gender-bending.


Walter certainly has an impressive back-catalogue of performances, but for an actor at the heart of the British theatre world she’s short on gossip, long on plot summary. She is grateful, for example, that Patrick Stewart was keen to play Antony to her RSC Cleopatra — most major male actors, we are told, scorn it as a supporting role — but that’s all we hear about him for the rest of the chapter. Earlier, we are informed, as if to affirm Walter’s own good sense, that she asked the fabled thespian, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, for advice on playing Portia. What the advice was, we never learn.

What is clear is that Walter understands Shakespeare’s language instinctively. Each of her chapters — Ophelia, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, etc. — is effectively a walkthrough the role’s best lines, with a guide to how Walters approached them. There are worthy insights: Lady Macbeth’s reproach to her husband, just as he gets cold feet about the whole murder malarkey, is fisked for evidence that it is he who has previously been, off-stage, the instigator. ‘What beast was’t then/ That made you brake this enterprise to me? …Not time nor place/ Did then adhere, and yet you would make both.’ Does this suggest, as Walter would have it, that Macbeth had already suggested murder before Duncan offered himself up as a convenient house guest — in his letter, or perhaps even before the encounter with the witches? Or is Walter, in her determination to vindicate his wife, going too far with the feminist revision? She makes a good case.

Elsewhere, there are glimpses of the vitality of Walter’s performances — and of the fluid developments in each production that the theatre critic, privy only to the experience of one evening, can never capture. In Cymbeline, as Imogen she played opposite Donald Sumpter’s Iachimo, who liked to vary how plausible his tale of her husband’s infidelity should be each night. But revelations are few and far between. Will any reader dispute that Beatrice’s injunction, in Much Ado About Nothing, to ‘Kill Claudio’ is more a test of Benedick’s loyalty than serious incitement to murder? Or that Hamlet’s relationship with Claudius and Gertrude is ‘a love triangle with an Oedipal slant’? It’s all a bit Cliff’s Notes, with added comments on performance.

The most uplifting read is Walter’s epilogue, a mournful, gentle love letter to Shakespeare, eloquently reproaching him for giving all the meaty parts to male characters. ‘As Brutus, I felt so privileged to play a character whose main concerns were freedom, power, morality and mortality.’ Scenes between Shakespeare’s female characters, she observes, struggle to pass the Bechdel test.

There’s less, however, on what this trend for cross-gender casting — in which Walter has been such an important figure — is likely to mean for our future understanding of Shakespeare. Lloyd’s productions work because — as Walter notes — they introduce us to a group of female characters, toughened but vulnerable, then show us how these woman prisoners might ape masculinity, mocking, in Caesar, Falstaff or Mark Antony, the men they know. Elsewhere, however, our eagerness to render great roles ‘gender-neutral’ has drained away many of the insights Shakespeare was quite capable of making for himself about sex and gender. In Glenda Jackson’s recent run as Lear, for example, the role becomes sexless, either by design or accident. As a conduit for pure emotion, Jackson is still magnificent, but we lose all sense of a father’s particular indulgence for his daughters, or the menace they feel when he turns up at their own estates, the boorish leader of 100 macho knights. A female Lear isn’t the solution to every feminist prayer.

Perhaps that isn’t Harriet Walter’s problem. She has set out to explore her own history of Shakespearian roles, no more no less. It just so happens that the last two chapters concern male roles. Drama students approaching these parts themselves will find it a helpful textual guide. There’s just the lingering sense of a missed opportunity.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close