Book Review: BRUTUS AND OTHER HEROINES by Harriet Walter

One of the big theatre stories of 2016 is women reclaiming Shakespeare, from Gillian Bevan's Cymbeline and Michelle Terry's Henry V to Glenda Jackson's Lear and Phyllida Lloyd's landmark all-female trilogy starring Harriet Walter.

The latter's book Brutus and Other Heroines is a strong combination of actor's guide to interpreting text and more general reflections on Shakespeare, but it's that element of female empowerment - whether through cross-casting or making judicious choices - which makes this such a potent read.

Walter's collection of essays is divided into chronological chapters focussed on her different roles, from Ophelia and Portia to Cleopatra and her current foray into male characters. There's intelligent, thoughtful close reading of text that makes it an invaluable tool for performers, with Walter explaining how to find psychological truth in the structure, as well as content, of verse, and in turn letting character choices inform your approach to performance.

But there's also a thread running throughout which asks why we - consciously or unconsciously - prioritise some voices over others, allowing for the continuing male domination in drama as well as society. When playing Ophelia for Richard Eyre, she consulted Virginia Woolf and R.D. Laing to understand how women, denied an outlet or the tools to articulate their views, may be "tipped into madness"; Ophelia, too, is dependent on the men around her for self-definition, placing her sanity further at risk.

Walter articulates the further power struggle of critical interpretation of performance, noting that actresses become accustomed to communicating beliefs more subtly than their male counterparts, which in turn leaves them open to misinterpretation. She was uncomfortable with Shakespeare and director Trevor Nunn's sense of woman as the redeemer when it came to All's Well That Ends Well's Helena, and focussed on her (often labelled 'unlikeable') qualities of strength and ambition - even so, a male critic described the character as "the martyr/bitch".

Yet when faced with roles that challenged her feminist sensibilities, Walter tried to find ways to express her character "in the most positive light possible without damaging the whole truth of the piece". With Cleopatra, that meant embracing her petty tyranny and calculated narcissism alongside a fear of ageing and abandonment.

Apart from the Egyptian ruler, Shakespeare's "girls who play boys" give women most opportunity to command, and Walter frankly expresses the jealousy she felt of male actors for whom that opportunity was routine. She was granted further opportunities by Phyllida Lloyd, though Walter admits a typically female reticence initially - would a man, she ponders, have that self-doubt, or instead a sense of entitlement?

It's certainly a joy for us, as well as Walter, to experience her re-entry after she feared her Shakespeare days were over - where does an actress go after Cleopatra? For audiences of Lloyd's trilogy, either at the Donmar or the current King's Cross Theatre run, the later chapters of the book offer an insightful companion guide, as Walter recalls her discovery of her prison character and way into the equivocal Brutus, as well the decision to let the cast keep their natural accents.

That decision, she argues, leaves audiences with a sense of "the talent we waste when we sideline swathes of society or lock them out of sight" - a potent political point, and a lesson for the theatre world, often still concerned with a conservative idea of how Shakespeare should look or sound. The recent Emma Rice controversy is a case in point.

Walter offers a brisk riposte to critics of cross-casting - we should be "holding Shakespeare's mirror up to the nature of a more current world", one in which women are demanding a more equal role and gender is a more fluid concept. She revels in the physicality of Henry IV, for whom she channels Ray Winstone, and, in a stirring epilogue addressed to Shakespeare, notes how he's cast a long shadow over our theatrical tradition, "with male protagonists whose thoughts and actions matter - and females who only matter in as much as they relate to those men". (The Bard certainly fails the Bechdel test.)

Shakespeare isn't about to rise from the dead and address that concern, but Walter - she proudly notes, one of the few actors who has played both the King and Queen of England - makes an articulate case for contemporary writers, producers and directors needing to value actresses of her talent, intelligence and integrity by providing work that matches it.

In what functions as a mission statement, one which feels even more urgent in a year teeming with heartbreaking attacks on progressivism, Walter lays out her determination to command that respect: "I fight for the right to portray women who are as contradictory, complex and diverse as the women I see all around me, and I uphold my right to present ordinary, flawed women at the heart of a play."

A beneficial tool for actors, but more than that, this is a battle cry for us all to demand better. An inspiring Christmas gift for anyone in your life who believes art can change the world.

Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare's Roles for Women is published by Nick Hern Books

The Shakespeare Trilogy at King's Cross Theatre until 17 December. Read our review

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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