Whether she’s on stage for three hours (like her astute Cleopatra or her commanding Elizabeth I in Schiller’s Mary Stuart) or on screen for three minutes (she was captivating in Denial, conveying a whole history in barely a couple of short scenes, and somebody please make a spin-off film about her sardonic but patient divorced wife of Jim Broadbent in The Sense of An Ending), Harriet Walter is an actor guaranteed to surprise. When I meet her for this article I’m prepared for Harriet Walter the Dame - a title she doesn’t like to use except somewhat ironically, particularly when irked by loathsome bureaucracy; Harriet Walter the stage legend who played an iconic Lady Macbeth and got the best of performances out of Antony Sher; and Harriet Walter the perceptive, intelligent, outspoken activist who has pursued her acting career with sharp self-awareness and political thoughtfulness very much in the public eye, relentlessly fighting racism, discrimination and inequality on stage and off.

Harriet Walter opposite Jim Broadbent in The Sense of An Ending, 2016

Harriet Walter opposite Jim Broadbent in The Sense of An Ending, 2016

What I’m unprepared for is Harriet Walter the rock star - in real life she is more Patti Smith than Virginia Woolf. She walks into the room in skinny black jeans and a cropped leather jacket, her short dark hair showing only the faintest of occasional silver lines, her face arrestingly beautiful with fiercely intelligent, deep dark eyes and totally clear of make-up. Her energy is feline, punkish and yet also deep-thinking and wise; there is something boyish about her but she is not gamine, not the type of young woman who would get cast as Peter Pan or Juliet in her youth. On the contrary, she exudes a womanness which has grown into itself bypassing girliness.

Harriet Walter as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Trevor Nunn at the RSC in 1981. 

Harriet Walter as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, directed by Trevor Nunn at the RSC in 1981. 

She’s perhaps unaware of how inspiring her particular kind of beauty is to a generation in the process of moving beyond polarised gender identities, or indeed to anybody who may have struggled with the prescriptive trappings of conventional femininity. I get the feeling that she thinks of herself as not beautiful, because she confesses that she hates watching herself on screen. When I ask her if there’s a difference between working in theatre and film today she says that film has a beauty problem - all the leading roles are given to beautiful women with beautiful faces; smaller roles land on the plate of actors with distinctive ‘character’ features and so she doesn’t receive a lot of offers for leading parts in film. Theatre is different: it’s a place of the imagination and even if the body plays a much more prominent place within live performance, it's the very liveness of the medium that gives the theatre actor's body scope to inhabit characters regardless of appearance. Film photographs the actor's face. Theatre sets the actor's body loose.

Harriet Walter as Lady Macbeth opposite Antony Sher in the RSC's production of Macbeth, 1999. Directed for the stage and screen by Gregory Doran.

Harriet Walter as Lady Macbeth opposite Antony Sher in the RSC's production of Macbeth, 1999. Directed for the stage and screen by Gregory Doran.

Theatre is where Harriet Walter’s inner panther is unleashed. Just before our conversation she is recording a long interview/career overview for Digital Theatre+ that starts with her young Ophelia opposite Jonathan Pryce’s famous Hamlet, and Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well at the RSC in the early 1980s, moving on to Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth in the late 1990s-early 2000s. After that great splash - two astounding performances in two towering roles - she was shocked: the great Shakespearean roles for women were over. Male actors of course play Othello and Richard III at all sorts of ages and they have Falstaff, King Lear and Prospero to look forward to in their later years; middle-aged women might get to play the Duchess in All’s Well That Ends Well or Paulina in The Winter’s Tale (a key character for the plot to develop, but she speaks around 300 lines across the entire unabridged play - by comparison Richard III has approximately 1200), but after Cleopatra there is a dearth of leading roles for ageing female actors.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra in the RSC's production of Antony & Cleopatra in 2006, directed by Gregory Doran.

Harriet Walter as Cleopatra in the RSC's production of Antony & Cleopatra in 2006, directed by Gregory Doran.

And so the latest turn in her career has seen her tackle three great roles that Shakespeare wrote for men - Brutus in Julius Caesar, the King in Henry IV and Prospero in The Tempest. Since 2012 Walter has been the lead actor in an all-female theatre company directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse and later in a pop-up theatre near London’s King’s Cross station - within a stone’s throw of Holloway Prison.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Julius Caesar, 2012-15, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

Harriet Walter as Brutus in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Julius Caesar, 2012-15, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

The experience of being in these men’s shoes revealed something to her. Prospero in particular, she says, was like a homecoming: “Prospero brought me closer to myself than I’ve practically ever been”. Part of the reason for this was discovering, as she rehearsed and played these roles, that they were genderless, that playing Shakespeare today, we're "post-gender". In Phyllida Lloyd's productions, there was no sense that Brutus or Henry IV would be played as archetypally male, that Walter would put on a performance to imitate an idea of maleness, or even copy male behaviour - whether physical or psychological. For Harriet Walter, in Shakespeare's theatre word = action: if you speak it, you are it. She found out that there was “no need to ‘play a man’” in order to become Brutus. The words were already doing the job. This realisation opened up a wealth of opportunities. 

The Donmar’s all-female company was set up explicitly to disrupt conventional casting practices, taking the idea of colour-blind and gender-blind casting even further than we have become accustomed to. Director Phyllida Lloyd wanted to redress a centuries-long power imbalance between men and women in theatre but also in public life. “It was not about playing with gender, but about giving women a voice,” Walter explains. This practice was not simply a bold claim to liberate professional female actors from standard casting, or even to include new voices into the cast to comply with diversity measures (there is still so much box-ticking in theatre today), but it became an inclusive exercise in compassion and mutual understanding across gender, ethnicity and class boundaries.

The Donmar Julius Caesar

The Donmar Julius Caesar

The aim of the company was to inspire young audiences from different backgrounds to see themselves represented on stage, to claim the right to speak Shakespeare’s lines, and through those lines to talk about their world today. Or as Shakespeare put it, via Hamlet describing the job of the actor, 'to hold a mirror up to nature' that shows in its reflection an image of the real world. Somehow this is still a revolutionary idea. The result of over three years of this collaboration and experimentation between Walter and Lloyd on stage has led to an even more culturally significant place. Walter observes: “the impact that the three all-female productions seem to have had on young men but particularly young women, was to empower them to think ‘I can do this. This - theatre, Shakespeare - isn’t something that is barred from me. It doesn’t solely belong to the white male middle class. I have a right to be speaking these lines and a right to be acting out these scenes and to be engaged in the ideas of the play. You get a leg-up, and entry point into the story, by watching people on stage who look like you and talk like you, and this opens doors to the ideas of the play - whether it’s set in ancient Rome, in medieval Britain or an imaginary island. It is possible then to feel empowered to have a more active role, to participate in society and not to feel excluded.”

Harriet Walter's latest book, published by Nick Hern Books

Harriet Walter's latest book, published by Nick Hern Books

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar concerns itself with the idea of democracy and good rule, with the exploitation of the plebs by the patricians and the volatile atmosphere engendered by the desire to put an end to one man’s excessive power with violence. At 402 years old, it’s remarkably fresh and still relevant to our days, as we constantly question the value of protest and assess the consequences of the will of the people when it is misled by demagogues. In the title of her latest book, Walter refers to Brutus - the reluctant conspirator, the child who betrays his parent, the idealist turned assassin as a ‘heroine’. The heroism of this character is also his downfall. His belief in a political cause leads him to sacrifice his humanity, committing an assassination that plunges the country into civil war. Walter found inspiration for this in conversations she was able to have with a number of women who were then serving prison sentences for terrorism offences, or for using violence for political purposes.

The conceit that frames Lloyd's production of Julius Caesar (and neatly accounts for its single-sex casting) is that the play is being rehearsed in an all-female prison: Shakespeare as rehab or group therapy or 'education'. As part of their own rehearsal, the company spent a long time working in close contact with current prison inmates, workshopping Shakespeare with them. The experience was revelatory. In explaining the work that the company carried out in prisons Walter mentions shocking percentages of inmates being victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and addiction, plus the inevitable fact of class being a determining factor as to whether a woman is locked up for a crime today. There is a risk that this marginalised community of women - many of whom were serving relatively short sentences - may never be able to return to ordinary life if they are dehumanised by their experiences in prison. And so theatre in this context served to restore some humanity.

The Donmar Julius Caesar

The Donmar Julius Caesar

For anyone in the know, there's a small nod toward Orange is the New Black, an award-winning comedy-drama series that has been praised for its empathetic depiction of life in a women’s correctional facility in the U.S., as well as its thoughtful approach to cast one of the most diverse and energetic ensembles in entertainment. But at this point in our conversation I ask if the the Taviani Brothers’ Berlinale 2013 Golden Bear winner Caesar Must Die was a reference in the company’s work. Walter tells me that the company watched it together multiple times, and discussed the way the film gets sensational performances out of a cast of real-life prisoners who are putting on Julius Caesar in Italy’s toughest high security facilities for mafia criminals (all serving time for crimes including multiple murders, racketeering, torture and GBH). “It was extraordinary to watch these men audition for their roles and tell everyone what they could bring to Cassius, Caesar and Brutus by talking about their life stories. They had done terrible things. And yet what came across was a common humanity - ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. And so anything that within a prison population communicates the idea that you’re not just a number, not just a crime you have committed, not just your history, is vital work: bringing theatre into a prison helps inmates to understand that they are still participant in our culture and our world. It must be good, if you come out of prison having had this experience; even a memory of that moment when you were in a play must mean that there is something bigger to aspire to.”

Harriet Walter as Brutus in the Donmar Julius Caesar

Harriet Walter as Brutus in the Donmar Julius Caesar

What strikes me particularly in this conversation is how much actors are the messengers of compassion and empathy. By being at the forefront of experiencing other lives within their own, are they helping us all to see things from a different perspective? Walter agrees: ”Absolutely, as an actor you’re supposed to get into a character, to imagine a life different from your own. But nobody wakes up in the morning thinking ‘I’m female’ or ‘I’m black’ - we are all just ourselves, going on about our lives, and that is what our consciousness is about as individuals. Society imposes certain notions on us - by gender, ethnicity, class. Some time ago I realised that, internally, I was trying to perform other people’s notion of what femininity looks like, or what masculinity looks like, and this was getting in the way of connecting with characters or even going against my own experience, my desires and my goals as an actors and as a person. The idea of gender has changed immensely and we’re finally beginning to think of identity as something fluid and changeable. There is more to be done also in terms of how we experience and see ethnicity, and even ability - I think that’s the last barrier. But a lot of great work is happening in the arts and the conversation is changing. It is difficult to get rid of all the stories that circulate where the currency is a sort of standardised beauty and youth, particularly in Hollywood film where you can get very high up if you’re young and beautiful. But lower down there are lots of improvements about the way we tell our stories representing people in a more realistic manner. And on screen especially - because the image here is much stronger than the word - you can attune people’s minds so that it’s no longer shocking or surprising to look at something unfamiliar that is beyond their lived experience. This is the work we do. And perhaps men and women interchanging roles will encourage more compassion and bring about major changes in the world. We will understand one another better if we’re people playing people.”

[Irene Musumeci, Curzon Head Office]

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The Donmar Trilogy was filmed on stage with a live audience in order to record the performances for future usage in educational and community work. Julius Caesar screens on Wednesday 12 July at Curzon Cinemas.

Harriet Walter’s latest book Brutus and Other Heroines is published by Nick Hern Books.