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Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare heroines’


Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane (BBC Strong Poison, 1987) — iconic


Viola in Twelfth Night (1970s) — early in her career, a quick poetic presence


As Brutus in Julius Caesar (2012) — more recently

In a context in which unmarried women were viewed as either innocent virgins, whores, or old maids, it was refreshing to play a Beatrice who is sometimes in-between. If she is a virgin, she is not innocent; and her love/hate for Benedick is a long-standing love/hate exclusively reserved for him, therefore she is no whore. Old maid she may be, but her self-professed scorn for the state of marriage and her one-off originality safeguard her from any pity. In my own life I had experience of this fragile state and had occasionally worn a similar masks (Harriet Walter, “Beatrice,” Brutus and Other Heroines)

Friends and readers,

Another of my actress blogs. I’m in the refreshing position of writing about an actress whose work I have long followed, love well, whose face as Harriet Vane I have used as my gravatar on my longest running blog (where I still sign Miss Sylvia Drake, from Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night) — almost all my actress blogs have been about 18th or 19th century British actresses (two exceptions). At the same time she is one of a number of British actresses since the profession began who writes well, about her art, about theater, and playing Shakespeare’s characters — it was such actresses, those who left interesting memoirs (as well as those who went into directing), who have been responsible for the rise in status serious actresses have enjoyed since the later 19th century.

I became aware of how special she was (that it was not just a subjective idiosyncrasy that made me aware of her presence wherever I saw her & would watch more attentively) when I came across her memoir of her time directing and acting in a company of actresses who were doing all female Shakespeare plays: Brutus and Other Heroines (Nick Hern, 2016), wherein she indeed played Brutus and Henry IV (Bolingbroke), not to omit earlier productions where she was Ophelia (early in her career), Helena and Imogen (she is especially proud of these, so more on this just below), Portia, Viola, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and even Cleopatra. Casting people is an art which does drive down to an archetype they can correspond to (or work against the grain): Michelle Dockery has been Hotspur’s wife, Kate; Keeley Hawes Elizabeth Plantagenet, widow and then wife of Edward IV; Sophie Okonedo, Margaret of Anjou and Cleopatra; Sally Hawkins, Duchess of Gloucester; Penny Downie, Gertrude; Lindsay Doran, Duchess of York, Sinead Cusack, Lady Macbeth (against type) and Judi Dench (defying this, so many).


In this volume she is with Juliet Stevenson the most insightful generally, with Fiona Shaw, the most self-aware (the editor and frequent commentator and voice is that of Faith Evans)

In reviews her performances are singled out, you can find her described individually when she has even a smaller role (nearly consistently in the better ones) — as conveying an intelligent presence, naturally witty, piquant, conveying when she wants a gravitas (and she can walk like a man as well as a Duchess), at times a light poetic presence (when younger), or yearning, recently in the contemporary Killing Eve (rave reviews) she has shown herself up to the hard edginess of a Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.


Dasha (BBC Killing Eve, 2020) — knowledge of the world making for an underlying melancholy

The trajectory of her career may be seen at wikipedia. She is the daughter of a respected actor, went to and succeeded at demanding academic schools, but preferred drama training to university, even though she had a hard time getting a place until the London Academy of Music and Art accepted her. She was a regular in the troupe with the Royal Shakespeare Company:


Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce as Hamlet (Royal Court Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre 1980)


As Beatrice, coming into her own, consulted in her costume

She was in theater in general for her first ten years, classic and good drama, continuing today; yielding to TV one-off dramas and serials by 1987 (one of her early roles the one I remember first, Harriet Vane — she favored detective heroines, mystery and spy drama even then).  She does what’s called quality drama in the TV serial type: she was powerful as Clementine Churchill burning her husband’s unwanted portrait up after his death:


Clementine Churchill (Netflix The Crown, 2014)

Then she became the present breaker-down of taboos (among other things, playing males); and in these last years, writing, directing and a patron of charities and encouraging young people to enter theater. I just love her appearances in documentaries where she will read exquisitely well deeply effective poetry (as in Simon Schama’s recent The Romantics and Us — along with Tobias Menzies). See her in a series of shots across her career in various roles in costume.

Sandra Richards in her important The Rise of the English Actress, makes Harriet one of her central portraits for recent (20th century) actresses (along with Emma Thompson, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson):

Harriet is one of those successful actresses who used her success to contest stereotyping (sometimes at the risk of being “unpopular on a set”); she also “gravitated towards plays and roles that treat issues on which [she] has strong feelings.” She chose political drama like John Berger and Nella Bielski’s A Question of Geography. A number of the roles she’s taken “question male prerogatives.” She was, early on, cast for one of the apparently most unpopular heroines in Shakespeare’s plays, Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well by Trevor Nunn, and she triumphed as a figure of integrity, deep sense of self and passion, partly thanks to Peggy Ashcroft there as Bertram’s mother, the Countess. She says that she must also in a role “still be identifiable as an ordinary person.” She did very much enjoy playing Harriet Vane, a match in unusual sexiness and intelligence for Edward Petheridge’s Lord Wimsey. In two of these stories, he may save her literally, but it is she who unpicks the case.

In my view she has a real penchant for the Psyche archetype at the core of the female detective story as it used be told.

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For me Harriet Walter’s writings on her art, how she works to act and what the plays mean are what makes her so special. She has helped to make me look differently at the plays and consider the actresses who dare inhabit Shakespeare’s women. She (and others in Clamorous Women) asks us to imagine what it’s like to be the only one or one of three actresses on a stage doing Shakespeare; of what it feels like when the director and adaptor (there is often an adaptor) are themselves unconscious misogynists, when they direct you with a lack of sympathy towards the character, re-arrange the scenes to make the character less sympathetic, imagine trying to complain! when what you want to do is change the director’s direction, see the character as a woman might.

I think especially in the cases of Helena of All’s Well that Ends Well and Imogen of Cymbeline — that until I read Walter’s comments, I had not realized how horribly both women are treated, especially Imogen who (like Desdemona) is threatened with honor-killing. I realize that in the case of the romance play, Shakespeare is in part following his atavistic and incoherent sources, but it is up to Walter (and her director and other actors) to makes sense of the character. Probably what is most entertaining and fascinating about her books is her analyses of all the characters she discusses (I can see how she would have done very well as an English lit major)– and she writes in the plainest of perceptive language.


Here she is with (as Posthumous) Nicholas Farrell, a superb actor who breaks all stereotypes of macho male, and would be impressive in projecting neuroticism and remorse

It seemed to me for both female characters, Walter’s choice was to imagine them personally courageous and sure of their integrity, and desiring their husband (as one might today desire some profession). Around such a conception she made sense of the roles. For my part I’m with Samuel Johnson and will never “reconcile my heart” to the callow selfish Bertram, but can accept that Helena could value him (and what a marvelous mother she’d get too!). The fairy tale and poetry of Cymbeline enables the reader/watcher to get further on one’s own, and draws us up over life’s irrational deep griefs. What Walter does is step-by-step tell herself (and now write down) what was her whole reaction and the details in it to the other characters’ demands on her. I felt I was rereading Shakespeare’s play from a wholly new angle, as well as how I might come on stage and who is there.

I was much helped by Fletcher’s Honour Killing in Shakespeare, indeed startled as much as I was years ago when I first read Charlotte Lennox’s 18th century Shakespeare Illustrated where Lennox said, why should Hermione rejoice when she’s lost 16 years of her life. Indeed, I had never thought of what was happening truly from the particular heroine’s POV. Who wants to spend 16 years in a dark room.

Honour-Killing in Shakespeare is not just how horrible is the behavior of all these males towards Hero (Much Ado About Nothing) but a reading of Hero’s lines which shows she is really attracted to Don Pedro, not keen on Claudio and who would be. A careful reading not only of the plays where the equivalent of honor-killing goes on, but the treatment of the women in the history plays (Henry VI had a number of complex fascinating women, an analysis of further story matter which suggests the paradigm in Shakespeare’s mind was not Eve but Susannah, falsely suspected, deceived, and ostracized by the males in her community is a core icon/myth for Shakespeare. Fletcher wants us to see that not only is Shakespeare not on the side of or indifferent to the misogyny of some of his material, but feminist himself (or proto-) in plays like As You Like It (Rosalind), Twelfth Night (Maria is as much an intelligent woman as Olivia is at least able to cope with her household when she puts her mind to it. What is supportive about this book is it close reads in the traditional readerly sense and then you can turn back to these actresses trying to cope with their parts (and other people coping with theirs and the whole theater/film crew). The book is so refreshing; even when you cringe or wince over plays like Titus Andronicus (the Philomel stories) you are asked to see what you are seeing as a woman might. I still am not sure that Shakespeare does not find Gertrude complicit (and cowardly, evasive) rather than drawn along, but the whole context of the world at that court is what you must account for.

True, there is nothing as clearly on the side of real women in the world of the early 16th century as in the tragedy of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (whom Harriet Walter has played). A moment of joy with her steward, now husband Antonio, and many hours (it feels like later) strangled for it by her brother.

I did find Walter’s reasoning over the treatment of Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew not persuasive — especially as I have read and seen Fletcher’s Jacobean The Tamer Tamed, where in fact the women are vindicated (I cannot recommend too strongly reading this play, in print, and seeing it if it should ever come near you — the RSC brought it to the Kennedy Center one year). It is also hard to make sense of Isabella in Measure for Measure, especially in context. Walter and other of the actresses are not beyond special pleading. To return to Clamorous Voices, I did find Sinead Cusack’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth as sensually in love with her husband, attached to him, making up for having no children left, and Juliet Stevenson’s ambivalent driving passion more gripping than the reasonable voices I’ve been following. But as each woman adds to a new way of reading Shakespeare, we can try to enable others to see with us when part of an audience, or teaching — or writing of one of his plays.

But I have digressed too far. This blog is a salute to Harriet Walter’s art as an actress so let me end here on her art as a comedienne: she steals the show, forever after filling the shoes (to use her word) of the bitingly hilariously selfish Fanny Dashwood in one of my favorite Austen films, the 1996 Sense and Sensibility (scripted by Emma Thompson):


“People live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them.”

Ellen

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