Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 118
In 2012, London’s Donmar Warehouse opened an all-female production of Julius Caesar, starring Dame Harriet Walter as Brutus and directed by Tony Award-nominated director Phyllida Lloyd. The production was set in a women’s prison, and it was the first of a trilogy of all-female productions, all starring Walter, that The Guardian would call “one of the most important theatrical events of the past 20 years.”
Julius Caesar was featured on PBS’s Great Performances on March 29, which made it the perfect time to call up Dame Harriet to discuss her decades-long career. We asked her about gender in Shakespeare, playing Ophelia, Portia, and Brutus, and her 2016 book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women.
Harriet Walter is one of the most acclaimed performers on the British stage. She won the 1988 Olivier Award for Best Actress, the Evening Standard Award for her work as Elizabeth I in the 2005 London revival of Mary Stuart, and has starred in Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Stream the film of Julius Caesar on Great Performances’ website.
Listen to our interview with Phyllida Lloyd, who directed Walter in Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Part 1, and The Tempest.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published April 2, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Say to All the World ‘This Was a Man’” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Dan Sterling at The Sound Company in London.
MICHAEL WITMORE: It takes a long time, and a lot of work, to get to this.
[CLIP: Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
As I am sure they do—bear fire enough
To kindle cowards and to steel with valor
The melting spirits of women, then, countrymen,
What need we any spur but our own cause
To prick us to redress?
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. That was Dame Harriet Walter as Brutus in the Donmar Warehouse production of Julius Caesar. And just what does it take? Remarkable talent, of course. And, as you’ll hear from Harriet Walter herself, it takes a lot of study, a whole lot of empathy, and then letting all of that percolate for 35 years.
Walter is one of the most acclaimed performers on the British stage. She won the 1988 Olivier Award for Best Actress; the Evening Standard Award for her work as Elizabeth-the-first in the 2005 London revival of Mary Stuart, and – at the Royal Shakespeare Company – starred in Twelfth Night, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Lately though, she’s been known for her leading roles in Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions set in prison.
[CLIP: Harriet Walter as Brutus in Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
As Caesar loved me, I weep for him. As he was fortunate, I rejoice at it. As he was valiant, I honor him. But, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love, joy for his fortune, honor for his valor, and death for his ambition.
Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar is airing on PBS Great Performances in the US, and we were lucky enough to be able to get Walter into the studio to talk about this production, her outstanding career, and her book, Brutus and Other Heroines. In honor of her most recent work, we call this podcast episode, “Say to All the World ‘This Was a Man.’” Harriet Walter is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Well, Harriet, you worked with inmates from the start on shaping this production of Julius Caesar. How exactly did that collaboration go? What kind of exercises did you do or questions did you ask the women to arrive at an approach to staging this play?
HARRIET WALTER: First of all, I think we wanted to know whether the play had resonance for them. Here were some female inmates, mostly in for non-violent crimes, and we were going to present a play that’s all about male violence. We were only allowed really to have, you know, a few uninterrupted hours with these guys because the prison environment is not conducive to consistent work. So, in two ways we did find out whether the play resonated for them and how. But it also informed the production that we did include some of these interruptions, some of this prison atmosphere that the women had to fight in order to get their message across.
[CLIP: Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
CINNA THE POET:
I dreamt tonight that I did feast with Caesar,
And things unluckily charge my fantasy.
I have no will to wander forth of doors,
Yet something leads me forth.
[A tone blares on a loudspeaker and the action of the play is interrupted. The actor swears playing CINNA swears. A guard yells.]
GUARD: Alexander! Medication!
BOGAEV: That—you’ve brought up a whole number of things. I’d like to talk about starting with this idea that you incorporated the chaos of prison life and the constant interruptions in the production too, because that has resonance with Rome and Julius Caesar, as well, right? Yes, Brutus and that they feel that they are in a restricted and prisonlike atmosphere in which they have no control, and you have no control in prison.
WALTER: Exactly. I felt that, I mean, although the women didn’t express their frustration necessarily, when we went on down the line to do other plays with other prisons that was a key, that they found it difficult to sustain the work because they were always being taken away from it.
BOGAEV: And speaking to this issue of women, what women bring to the staging of this production, and they said more emotion. Play that out for me, and could you give me an example? And I’m thinking of one scene in particular, the scene in the tent between Brutus and Cassius about the bribes.
[CLIP: Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
You say you are a better soldier.
Let it appear so, make your vaunting true,
And it shall please me well. For mine own part,
I shall be glad to learn of noble men.
You wrong me every way, you wrong me, Brutus.
I said an elder soldier, not a better.
Did I say “better”?
If you did, I care not.
BOGAEV: You say in your book about this that women performing that gave it a double life. How so?
WALTER: Well, it’s partly because women on the whole… it’s very dangerous for women to have arguments. It’s not easy to patch them up afterwards. Whereas when you see the male culture as demonstrated in that tense scene, they’re absolutely ripping one another’s throats out. And then at the end they go, you know, “No hard feelings, mate. Let’s have a drink.”
[CLIP: Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
Strike as thou didst at Caesar, for I know
When thou didst hate him worst, thou lovedst him better
Than ever thou lovedst Cassius.
Sheathe thy dagger.
Be angry when you will, it shall have scope.
O Cassius, you are yokèd with a lamb
That carries anger as the flint bears fire,
Who, much enforcèd, shows a hasty spark
And straight is cold again.
WALTER: If you see two women doing that, you feel that there would be a resentment and a hatred, that they would never be able to speak to one another again. Because it’s more shocking and unusual for women, on the whole, to be so directly lacerating and confrontational.
BOGAEV: Right, and directly aggressive. There would be more layers to the aggression and to the forgiveness, right, to the tamping down of the aggression.
WALTER: There would be more subtlety or something. Exactly. But it helped us get to the real core of the argument, which is, Cassius is saying, all’s fair in love and war. You’ve got to make compromises. You can’t be squeaky clean if you’re dealing with war. And Brutus is saying, it doesn’t have to be like that, what’s the point of killing one tyrant and replacing it with another kind of corruption? So, of course, Brutus is an idealist, because actually [LAUGH] he keeps his hands clean, but by making other people do the dirty work.
BOGAEV: Oh, how did working within a prison with female inmates shape your approach then to or your understanding of Brutus?
WALTER: Well, in a funny way it didn’t so much because we didn’t have conversations on a profound level about morality with the prisoners at that stage. So I was slightly battling alone on that character, and I still find him quite fascinating and complicated. Because there are clues in his language that let drop that he is not actually facing the truth about himself.
[CLIP: Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
It must be by his death. And for my part
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. They say tomorrow
The senators mean to establish Caesar as a king.
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder,
And that craves wary walking. Crown him that,
And then I grant we put a sting in him
That at his will he may do danger with.
WALTER: If he looked too deeply at what dishonorable things he’s doing, he wouldn’t be able to function.
[CLIP: Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak, for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak, for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
WALTER: It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost as if we’re talking about Macbeth 10 years before the play. The kind of honorable solider with the good reputation who is bit by bit dragged in to bad behavior by ambition and political necessity or whatever.
BOGAEV: There is a truism with… especially among people of committed violent crime that they always cling to one thing that proves that they have a conscious and that. . . “If it hadn’t been for this one thing that happened I would never have hit her,” or “I would’ve never have killed him.”
WALTER: Yes. I think that’s right. I think it’s really, really deeply difficult for anyone to really look at what they’ve done if they’ve done real harm. I mean, it’s just a very big ask of anybody. But, in order to continue to function, Brutus is self-deluded to a certain extent.
BOGAEV: Well, we should make it clear that in this production you have a dual role, you’re playing both in the role of an inmate and an inmate who is performing Brutus.
[CLIP: Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse, 2012]
When I spoke that, I was ill-tempered too.
[An inmate, standing in the background, belches.]
Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.
And my heart too.
[Walter breaks character—she is no longer BRUTUS, but the inmate who is playing Brutus.]
What the [expletive] are you doing back there? Just, either, get off the stage or do something useful on it. Little [expletive].
BOGAEV: Did you have any concern that you couldn’t play the role of an inmate?
WALTER: Yes, that’s an interesting question, I…
BOGAEV: You come from such a privileged background, I mean, not to put too fine a point about it, that you’d look like you were pretending rather than embodying.
WALTER: Sure. Well, there is that real danger, and that was above all my worry I think at the beginning. And without blowing a trumpet, just because I’m of a certain age a lot of the London audience know me. They kind of know, “Oh, that’s Harriet Walter the actress, and what’s she doing in prison?” I knew that might break the reality for people when the rest of the cast on the whole were newcomers, and you could quickly go in to a prison environment and believe you were there. So I had to really take stock and think about, why might I be in a prison?
BOGAEV: So how did you get over that hump? Did you take a model?
WALTER: Well, in the end I had to take a model who was very far from anybody ordinary. And I looked for a political prisoner, because the heart of Brutus is so much about his passion for a fair and egalitarian society. So I was looking at Baader-Meinhof, Red Brigade, and I went to your country and looked amongst the Weather Underground and white middle class revolutionaries, and so I found an amalgamation, and I focused very much on a prisoner in New York State called Judy Clark. You know, and she’s…
BOGAEV: Well, she was part of this revolutionary group, right?
WALTER: She was, and she…
BOGAEV: Similar to Patty Hurst a little bit, she was involved in a robbery, right? Bank robbery?
WALTER: That’s right. And she served a super long sentence, I don’t wanna go too much in to this because this is a case that is quite sensitive right now. Suffice to say that I and most people who come in to contact with her have been incredibly impressed by her. She seems to be somebody for my character to aspire to, and she lent me the kind of passion that I needed for this character, the 120 percent investment in the play and its themes and how important it was to my character in prison to communicate these ideas to an audience, on what we’re pretending is a once in a lifetime moment when you can do it, you know [LAUGH]?
BOGAEV: I wanna go back to the inception of this project of the trilogy. We had Phyllida Lloyd on the podcast when this production originally of Caesar was at the Donmar. And she told us that you went to see her at one point and said, “Look, I’ve pretty much run out of road on the classical stage,” and that you were maybe gonna give up on Shakespeare. And she asked you, what role would you take on still, and you said, according to her, Macbeth and Brutus. “I’ve got much more in common with Brutus than I ever had with Cleopatra.” So, two questions: why is that the case, and was this always the case, or is this how you felt then at that specific point in your life, well in to middle age?
WALTER: I have to correct [LAUGHTER] a few things here. Phyllida and I were in conversation and I had, as she says, I’d come to the end of the road, having played Cleopatra, there’s no way you can go after that.
[CLIP: Harriet Walter as Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, the Royal Shakespeare Company, 2006]
Put on my crown. I have
Immortal longings in me.
WALTER: Just on a sheer physical and technical and emotional level, it’s the greatest part for a woman.
Now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip.
Yare, yare, good Iras, quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call. I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath.—Husband, I come!
WALTER: But the idea that I came to her saying I want to play Brutus, that is completely misremembered on her part [LAUGH]. Because what actually happened was I thought, “Well, I’m too old for Hamlet.” I actually had a TV show that I was doing, so I wasn’t absolutely sure I was going to be free to do this project. We were having a sort of almost objective look at the canon and talking about what we could do, and in my memory, she came up with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Julius Caesar. And Romeo and Juliet, I thought, “Well, there’s really not much of interest for me in that.” Then we narrowed down, we thought Julius Caesar is such a male play, perhaps that’s exactly where we should start to make our entrance, you know? Rather than in the love-interest plays, which is, you know, all about gender duality anyway, why don’t we tackle a very male subject? And my honest remembrance of it was, “Well, what would I play? Would I be Cassius, Brutus, or Caesar? Well, Caesar dies early, but he’s the title role. Brutus is kinda wishy-washy, I’m not sure who he is, but actually. . . yeah, actually, he’s the most complex, I think I’d like that.” That’s how I remember it. And yes, I had said I’d like to play Macbeth, because I’d played Lady Macbeth and I figured I understood it.
BOGAEV: Well, there’s always this question, when you have women playing men, how to embody male characters. How to be a male onstage without falling in to caricature. And not to act like men, but to be men. How did you think about that?
WALTER: Well, we had a great woman called Ann Yee, who is a choreographer, a movement teacher, none of those things quite fill it up. And she will take us back to the dynamics of movement and why we move in certain ways and why we stand in certain ways. Not, “Oh, men stand like that because they’re men and they’re a different creature,” but “Men stand like that because they have the authority, they’re allowed, they’re permitted to take up space. They feel entitled.”
BOGAEV: They’re entitled. Yes, to a wide stance.
WALTER: That’s right, and women by habit tend to sort of try and shrink themselves and look decorous. Likewise men had the pressure—which was what I found so revealing when I played a man, was that men have the pressure to live up to the leadership challenges that they’re given. Those sorts of gestures, you know, need to be filled with confidence and egotism and ambition that are totally discouraged in women. So that we weren’t going, “What do men sound like, what do they walk like?” We were needing to be heard and paid attention to and lead, and therefore the loudest voice you could have, the deepest-rooted voice you could have, the strongest physical stance, the firmest planted feet, those were all going to help your character to achieve what that character wanted to achieve.
BOGAEV: It always comes back to intention. And that’s interesting because you’ve written about playing Shakespeare’s girls who pretend to be boys, as you say, and one thing you wrote is that it was important for you to find differences between all the characters, Portia and Imogen, and you say that you worried at one point whether there perhaps was only one boy in you. Tell me more about that, what did you mean by just one boy?
WALTER: Can I equate it to something like, I maybe only have one American accent? You know? [LAUGHS] If I’m told to do an American accent, I’ll do my American accent, you know? Whereas when you get…
BOGAEV: Right, which, if it’s John Wayne, that’s not gonna work, you know? [LAUGHS]
WALTER: Exactly. Then when you get more in to the character you will find that you’ll get a voice coach telling you, “Actually, you’re from Portland, Oregon. You talk like this, you’re from this economic bracket,” you know? But to begin with you think I just have this one American persona. Similarly I think at the time, and, you know, remember, I was early 30s, mid-30s, I hadn’t had that much experience, and I feared that I only had one tomboy in me.
BOGAEV: Right, and then you get onstage or in rehearsal, right, and you discover those specific characteristics of each character. And maybe, I don’t know, “Now I get it, this is what it is to be a man.” Did you have that kind of experience? You do describe something like that revelation when you played Portia as Balthazar in the courtroom scene of The Merchant of Venice.
WALTER: Yes. I mean, in a way Portia was the most successful boy of the three I played. I never played Rosalind. If we’re gonna talk clichés, in a way she has the most masculine mind. She has a masculine intellect. If you go back through the play you see that a lot of her arguments, they’re almost legal and logical and analytical in the way that she shows herself to be in the courtroom. But the other two, particularly Imogen—which is funny because she’s such a forceful character when she’s female—she becomes the most girly and vulnerable. And with everything, I’m afraid, you know—because one doesn’t know where to start with Shakespeare—I do crawl along what he’s instructed me to do in the writing, you know? So I’ll analyze, what is the purpose of this disguise? The purpose of the disguise is different in each of those roles. And the degree of trepidation is different in each of those roles. I began to find a different boy in each of these different people.
BOGAEV: I do want to dig in to this a little bit, because I think it’s something that people, like me, who aren’t actors, never experience. You say that Portia, in this courtroom scene, for instance, while you’re onstage, while you’re rehearsing. . . it teaches, the play or the scene or the acting, teaches you how to play it. And you wrote, “I laid my plans, I thought it through logically step by step, but when I came to play it, I experienced it, and I learnt things about myself, and I’m sure Portia learnt similar things, and this added a whole other dimension that Shakespeare never envisaged since he never expected a woman to bring her experience of life to bear in the playing of it.” So that was a long quote from your book, but it really gets to the heart, I think of women playing some of these roles that originally men played, all men played all roles in Shakespeare. So what did you learn and how does it happen in the moment of acting onstage that you learn it?
WALTER: Well, there’s two things to say. First of all, that Shakespeare has this magical effect that he does teach you, you know? You have to get bigger than you are in the first place to play Shakespeare. You have to grow to reach these characters, to reach the language, to reach the imagery. And because you hear yourself saying certain beautiful, powerful, extraordinary things, you hear your voice saying it, and you know your mind has thought it, it actually expands your sense of yourself. And, you know, I’m maybe taking a sidetrack here, but that’s why it’s so valuable to perform these things in schools, to perform these things in prison, to get women to play men, because these are people who mostly don’t think of themselves as powerful. And don’t think of themselves as articulate or imaginative or that what they think matters. If you hear yourself saying these things, then you come away a bigger person. I can’t really explain it better than that. And I love to watch the—
BOGAEV: And that’s what you felt onstage, this disconcerting thrill of the power that she had commanding that courtroom?
WALTER: In that particular role of Portia, yes, because she is in her element in the courtroom. I would say Rosalind, who I haven’t played, but I imagine Rosalind and Portia, they are people who have been missing out and find their feet when they’re playing a man. But they also learn something about power which is slightly uncomfortable. What I experienced was, you know, here was I using this articulacy, having this sort of verbal dialogue, cut-and-thrust with Shylock, and in the end I conquer him and I make him convert to Christianity, and I see him on his knees. For a woman who’s never had to do harm like that, it was disconcerting for me and it was disconcerting, I imagine, for the character.
BOGAEV: There are so many layers to this. And you also say there’s that layer, you have a theory really in your book about this, that when Shakespeare was writing, he was writing for young men who were being groomed for greatness, young actors, and they were the ones who played these women characters. You speculate that it must’ve freed Shakespeare to make his woman characters just as interesting as the male roles. Elaborate on that, what’s the argument there?
WALTER: It’s total speculation, but I think that at the time if there’d been women on the stage because of the social morays of the time they might’ve had to have behaved, this is just my theory, in a more decorous way, or not been so outspoken when they are outspoken. And dressing as a boy would’ve had a whole other sort of kick to it. It already had a sexual kick with boys dressing as girls, you know, but there would’ve been another kind of kick that was I don’t know less liberating I suspect than the other way around. I think that it also sort of explained, you know, I mean, there were fewer roles for women and they were smaller. But they were no less complicated and rich. And that makes me think that whatever skill was needed to bring those characters to life, there was a respect for that skill because those boys were gonna go on and they’d have a lifetime as an actor and they would learn their craft.
I had to explain to myself why the characters were just as complicated and rich and beautifully written for females as males, and yet there are fewer of them and your lifetime wasn’t as long in them, and I could only think that it was because the young boy players were gonna go on to play men, and therefore they would no longer be playing women.
BOGAEV: A lot of your work is explaining things to yourself as an actress; I think for any actor you have to make sense of the backstory, the backstory that we might not necessarily see. I see this really well in, really, your first role in Shakespeare, and it’s a role that flummoxes many young actresses: Ophelia. You did it in 1980, and of course the big question for both the audience and for you playing Ophelia always comes down to what is the deal with her madness? You know, what do you do with that, what’s the key? I should say that you were working with director Richard Eyre at the time, and both of you had just worked on the film The Imitation Game, and that you both saw parallels between World War II codebreaking drama and Shakespeare. He also gave you some homework: this Virginia Wolfe essay about a crushing patriarchy, so what was your process in breaking that code of Ophelia’s madness?
WALTER: Well, I did a lot of reading. It sounds so counterproductive to just get into some intellectual homework when you’ve only got three weeks to rehearse [LAUGHS], which was the reality. I was a bit coy about bringing out into rehearsal room… I didn’t work in the rehearsal room, which I think is quite a common thing, that you’re a bit coy and embarrassed to expose yourself in a rehearsal. So you do a lot of homework back home and bring it onto the stage when there’s no way out, you know, when no one can say, “You’re wrong, get off the stage.” But I just decided, look, I’m not sure I understand this thing of going mad with heartbreak or going mad with shock, you know? I argued that Juliet had almost the same thing happen to her, in that her beloved boyfriend slays her cousin, and that she has all these barriers put up to her and all these tragic things happen to her, and she doesn’t go mad.
And Ophelia has a fragility that’s built in to the language, where she has a lot of phrases that are about being very conditioned by her father. You know, “I know not what to think, my lord,” you know, and, “I’ll tell you what to think,” he says. She’s a sort of molded character that her father, who’s quite autocratic, has kind of created, and allowed her brother much more freedom. I looked at all those sort of clues in the text to come up with the idea that she was already a fragile person. She wasn’t a tough cookie or a sexy, confident girl who then goes crazy.
BOGAEV: Fragile, yet intelligent, and oppressed, right.
WALTER: Intelligent, and often the two go together, yes. She was perceptive and sensitive, and we played it that the bond between Hamlet and her was about their sort of fellowship, being the outsiders. You know, the people who didn’t fit into, you know, the official Elsinore. I mean, if you like, you can think Princess Diana in a way.
BOGAEV: So that’s the backstory. How do you bring that to the stage? Because Richard Eyre told you, you wrote, “He didn’t want any mad acting.” And I think know what he meant, but you tell us, what did mean by mad acting?
WALTER: Well, I think what I felt is that madness is one of the hardest things to act because of its nature. It is when you have lost your sense of self. You’ve lost your self-awareness and your self-consciousness. And acting is all about having self-awareness and self-consciousness. So the trick with acting, the double bluff, is I am pretending that I’m not being watched. And you had to play a character who’s not aware of the reality around her. It takes some kind of courage to create your own bubble of reality and not demonstrate it so that everybody knows why and what you’re doing. You have to leave it a mystery because it is a mystery.
We come back to the word intention. My intention is to tell my truth to Gertrude, to tell my truth to Claudius. To expose this awfulness that my father’s been murdered, but she’s not even thinking that coherently, but that’s at the heart of I think what she’s doing.
BOGAEV: And this is a psychological approach to acting as opposed to creating character through language. It’s funny, throughout your book, I think twice you say, “If Shakespeare were around directing me, he’d say, ‘Oh, love, just say the words. You’ll be fine.'” [LAUGHS]
WALTER: Exactly. Exactly. The fact is we have to be much more sophisticated, I think, than even acting was 10 years ago. I mean, you have to play to communicate to the audience that you’ve got, and it’s possible—we don’t know how people acted in Shakespeare’s day, but let’s face it, in the whole of London there can’t have been a sort of the crème de la crème of the RSC in 1970, you know? It would’ve been just the guys who could do a good job, sound very clear, do acrobatics, be funny, be able to scare people, make people cry, make people laugh. So the subtleties—you know, I’m not saying that Richard Burbage… he was probably as great an actor as Laurence Olivier, we’ll never know. But the audience, there’s the expectation, they’d have been marveling at the very spectacle, at the very fact that they were in a place that these things were going on and these stories were being told.
Well, when you’ve got sort of 40 plays going on in London at once and an audience who watch TV and film and have been watching theater for centuries, you have to deliver up something that’s much more specific, and… I don’t know, you have to be a little bit ahead of the game. You know, people will see through you much more quickly, and go, “That’s demonstrated, that’s technical, I don’t believe that.” You know, those are the sort of things that a sophisticated audience will think.
BOGAEV: Fittingly, since we’re running out of time, for my last question I wanna ask you about an epilogue you wrote to your book, and it’s written as a letter to Shakespeare. And you say you would love Shakespeare to come back and do some rewrites now that the world is challenging preconceptions about gender. Which plays or parts in particular would you like him to take a stab at?
WALTER: Well, I mean, any of it. You wouldn’t want him to rewrite the whole canon. I’d like him to write a new play. We’ve got a lot of stuff, I’m not saying we started it because it’s been going on a while, you know, in the last century and the century before women have played men’s parts, but there was something about our trilogy that, you know, you hear more and more and more. The Royal Shakespeare Company are doing a 50-50 casting system. You don’t even blink when you hear that there’s going to be a female Othello. It’s become sort of fairly common practice, and one of the questions people ask is, “What other plays, what other playwrights? Could you do it with Pinter?” And you go, “No, this is about new plays. We need plays that address where we’re at now. We need him to write a new play. Or six.” [LAUGHS]
The epilogue came from me feeling, you know, so close to him in one way, because I’ve been rattling around in his imagery for 35 years, you know, and I feel like he’s my friend. But the reality is that he would probably go, “What the hell are you doing onstage, you old woman? Why are you playing Brutus?” You know? “Get off!” And, you know, so he might not be my friend at all, and I just thought the humanitarian giant that he is, you know, I’m hoping, just imagining and hoping that if he did come back tomorrow he would be on our side. But I don’t know that for sure.
BOGAEV: Ah, that’s a lovely thought to end with, and Harriet Walter, thank you so much for your work, Shakespeare and otherwise, and thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
WALTER: Thank you.
WITMORE: Dame Harriet Walter plays the role of Brutus in Julius Caesar on Great Performances, which premiered nationwide March 29 on PBS. Check your local listings for the time and date in your area. The production streams the following day on PBS.org/GPerf and the PBS Video app. It will also be available on PBS Passport later in April.
Her book, Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare’s Roles for Women, was published by Nick Hern Books in 2016. Dame Harriet was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast episode, “Say to All the World “This Was a Man” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Dan Sterling at The Sound Company in London.
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And, if you find yourself in Washington, DC, please come and visit us on Capitol Hill. Take in a performance in our Elizabethan theater and come face to face with a First Folio – the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.