Theatre in Wales

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Could I risk a bit of bloody criticism from my male colleagues and male critics?

Actor Theatre Book

Harriet Walter “Brutus and Other Heroines” , Nick Hern Books , February 5, 2018
Actor Theatre Book by Harriet Walter “Brutus and Other Heroines” Everything that is new is new in its own way. But nothing is ever entirely new. When Nietzsche wrote about eternal recurrence he was right, albeit not quite in the right way. Cultural life is normally quiet, as much in England as in Wales. In January there was a flare-up. It was unsatisfactory in that an issue was raised that was deep and felt. But it went without continuity and without continuity there can be no resolution. One national arts company participated in a manner that was eloquent and forthright. Another held its silence. Alfred Hirschmann wrote in 1970 on the choice between “Voice” versus “Exit.” The thing with silence is that it also speaks.

Surface symptoms mask deep issue. The issue of who gets to represent whom in performance is perennial. Its actualisation at any one time is a mix of expediency, convention and the decisions of those in power. In 2000 Hytner directed Gambon in a play by Nicholas Wright called “Cressida.” It was the subject of that play and the period of its setting was the year 1600.

The latest chapter can be dated to 1992 and it involved two Richards. Richard Ingrams led the charge in fulminating against Richard Eyre. Clive Rowe could be a Damon Runyon chancer but Eyre's casting of him as Oscar Hammerstein's Mr Snow was an instance of a director going too far. It was a new chapter but not a new issue. In 1960 the New York Times inveighed against Sid Caesar's representation of East Asians. In 1936 Orson Welles' casting for Shakespeare earned it the sneer of the “Voodoo Macbeth”. Nothing is ever entirely new.

Harriet Walter's latest book is thus timely. This season a group of women actors are at London's Bridge Theatre plotting a coup d'etat against power. Adjoa Andoh, omitted from the short press reviews of “Julius Caesar”, is mesmerising as Cascar. Michelle Fairley is a fine companion as Cassius. Yet the blogosphere is unhappy.

“I'd assumed Fairley and Andoh were playing men, but this seems to suggest Cassius is female” says one “Sorry to niggle, but while I'm fine with actors playing across gender I'm not knowingly going to any more productions where the gender of the characters has been altered.” “I'm not at all fine with actors playing across gender- if the characters ARE men/women then they should be played by men/women.” In these commentators' eyes they see women before they see actors.

Harriet Walter's subtitle is “Playing Shakespeare's Roles for Women”. Its ten chapters cover Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Portia, Beatrice, Cleopatra. But the last 53 pages are devoted to the playing of men. Her Prospero which she performed in London and New York is not included but Brutus and Henry IV are.

Phyllida Lloyd took her company into Holloway Prison. Harriet Walter discovers that the crimes are nearly all petty. “Nearly all women in jail are there” she writes “because of a man in their life: a pimp, a drug dealer, or a violent partner.” The workshops tell her one thing. “We did get confirmation that the play was the right one to do.” When it is over she concludes “I hoped we had done “Julius Caesar” justice, but I also felt we had left them with a sense of the talent we waste when we sideline swathes of society or lock them out of sight.”

When it comes to Henry IV it is a big production. The cast of fourteen is “composed of women of all ages, sizes, colours and sexualities, some of African, some of Caribbean, Chinese or Indian descent, some Irish, some Scottish, one Spanish.” The production has a result for the actors in “that the women do not inhabit familiar categories.” Again the women of Holloway give insight. The prisoners see in Falstaff and the Prince the relationship of dealer to user. “Thanks to the prisoners” she acknowledges “we adopted this story as our input.”

As for the transfer into maledom Harriet Walter is as good as any actor has been in print. “Playing men was not so much” she observes “about putting on deep voices or blokeish walks; it was more about stripping away feminine gestures. We found so many of our cultural habits...were about accommodating other people and making ourselves less threatening. We tried to get into a mindset of entitlement; entitlement to be seen and heard. To take up space and dominate a room.”

“Brutus and Other Heroines” is not just about acting and gender. It is also about Shakespeare and it ends with a five page letter that starts “Dear Will.” “The women in your plays often have a moral clarity that comes from their very exclusion.” Among the characters and the actions she cites much of the verse and values highly the words of Brutus. “The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins remorse from power.”

Before it all begins she asks herself a question “could I risk a bit of bloody criticism from my male colleagues and male critics?” The answer here in print is “Of course I bloody could."

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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