‘A part we have played is like a person we once met, grew to know, became intimately enmeshed with and finally moved away from. Some of these characters remain friends, others are like ex–lovers with whom we no longer have anything in common. All of them bring something out in us that will never go back in the box.’
In a varied and distinguished career, Harriet Walter has played almost all of Shakespeare’s heroines, notably Ophelia, Helena, Portia, Viola, Imogen, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and Cleopatra, mostly for the Royal Shakespeare Company. But where, she asks, does an actress go after playing Cleopatra’s magnificent death? Why didn’t Shakespeare write more – and more powerful – roles for mature women?
For Walter, the solution was to ignore the dictates of centuries of tradition, and to begin playing the mature male characters. Her Brutus in an all–female Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse was widely acclaimed, and was soon followed by Henry IV. What, she asks, can an actress bring to these roles – and is there any fundamental difference in the way they must be played?
In Brutus and Other Heroines, Walter discusses each of these roles – both male and female – from the inside, explaining the particular choices she made in preparing and performing each character. Her extraordinarily perceptive and intimate accounts illuminate each play as a whole, offering a treasure trove of valuable insights for theatregoers, scholars and anyone interested in how the plays work on stage. Aspiring actors, too, will discover the many possibilities open to them in playing these magnificent roles.
The book is an exploration of the Shakespearean canon through the eyes of a self-identified ‘feminist actor’ – but, above all, a remarkable account of an acting career unconstrained by tradition or expectations. It concludes with an affectionate rebuke to her beloved Will: ‘I cannot imagine a world without you. I just wish you had put more women at the centre of your world/stage… I would love you to come back and do some rewrites.’
‘A glorious reminder that genuine diversity on stage offers astonishing creative benefits… Harriet Walter is mesmerising in one play after another, bringing her classical training to bear as a conflicted Brutus, then a Henry IV who wears his crown heavily, and finally a Prospero who knows that the steel bars of prison are resistant to all magic… this is genuinely art to enchant’ The Guardian on the Donmar Warehouse’s Shakespeare Trilogy
‘Intelligent, thoughtful… a strong combination of actor’s guide to interpreting text and more general reflections on Shakespeare, but it’s the book’s element of female empowerment – whether through cross-casting or making judicious choices – which makes this such a potent read… an invaluable tool for actors, but more than that, this is a battle cry for us all to demand better’
— Broadway World
‘An entertaining, informative and interesting read for anyone involved with acting, language and performance, but above all Shakespeare’
— Word Matters (Journal of the Society of Teachers of Speech & Drama)
‘Illuminating… provides fascinating insights that come out of researching, rehearsing and performing the roles… will be of interest to scholars as well as actors of either gender playing those characters’
‘Delightful… intelligent, entertaining and informative’
— British Theatre Guide
‘A quiet jewel of a book… perhaps only a great actress with a lot less narcissism than average could write such an intelligent, hard-nosed book about Shakespeare, and about gender… any actor who wants to master their art should read it and take notes’
— The Australian
‘Enlightening and entertaining… Harriet Walter has a real gift for an account which is part personal journey and part practical analysis of Shakespeare’s words and how they can be interpreted – by someone who really knows… if you want insights into playing Shakespeare’s roles for women in the widest sense then look no further than this penetrating, very readable book’
— Ink Pellet
‘One of those startling one-offs that seem to resist categorisation… [asks] lively questions, and Walter is restless and intelligent in pursuit of answers… this is a clever, energetic, principled mind at work’
— The Oldie