Harriet Walter Interview

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Another archive interview from the early nineties, this time with Harriet - now Dame Harriet - Walter.

The interview, perhaps, demonstrates a certain youthful naiveté in my admiration for this fabulous actor, but I make no apology for it. She's done a lot of acclaimed film and TV work (e.g. Atonement and The Crown), but not enough to gain her the wider public recognition of some of her contemporaries - despite a cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens that apparently brought her more fan mail than anything else she's ever done. Yet she is incandescently truthful on stage and screen, and has recently been leading the Donmar Warehouse's all-female company in their ground-breaking productions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest.

In my conclusion, I say that I hope directors will cast her in roles such as Cleopatra, Queen Margaret and Volumnia. The first of those, Harriet played in 2006 for the RSC opposite Patrick Stewart's Mark Antony. It was magical, and I saw it more times than I could sensibly afford...


Harriet Walter as the Duchess of Malfi

Harriet Walter Interview

"It sounds banal, but it was Hayley Mills' movies," says Harriet Walter, when I ask what first inspired her to become an actress. "She hit the screens when I was about eight or nine, and played these rather tomboyish characters. When you're a little girl, to see that A N Little Girl is the centre of everybody's attention up on the screen was a dream come true, if you know what I mean."

Sipping at a cup of tea in the foyer of a Sloane Square hotel, the air busy with Christmas chatter, Harriet Walter talks candidly about her work and the ethos behind it. With shoulder-length auburn hair and striking, intelligent features, she looks a decade younger than her forty-one years. Her deep, brown eyes make her one of the most emotionally communicative actresses currently working, and at present she is enjoying the acclaim of critics and audiences alike. Perhaps more admired than widely known until the success of BBC2's The Men's Room, and soon to be heard as Lady Macbeth on radio, she admits to having had no preconceptions about the direction her career would take.

"I didn't go leaping to stardom, straight to the top of the form. It's been a very slow, gradual process, which is very gratifying. I suppose what's surprised me is that I'm any good, because it's one thing to really want to do something; it's another to discover, bit by bit, that you actually can."

She speaks in long, fluid sentences, punctuated by the occasional pause while she gathers her thoughts. Her voice is deceptively light for someone who has exerted such command over the Stratford main-stage, and she displays a readiness to laugh at both herself and the more absurd aspects of life.

When I ask if she has any heroes among the acting profession, she seems momentarily thrown, but mentions a teenage admiration for Rudolf Nureyev, which shaped her view of what performance should aim to achieve. "He seemed to go beyond his actual craft into something that was expressive of life itself. I think actors should be more down to earth, recognizable and human, but at the same time, they should reach those inspirational heights somewhere that dancers, music and grand opera can reach."

Walter's own career is indicative of her commitment to serious, politically challenging theatre, born of a trip to South Africa on a drama tour when she was eighteen, after which "the world could never look the same again". Early seasons at the Duke's Playhouse, Lancaster, led on to work with radical companies such as Joint Stock and 7:84, and later the Royal Court and the RSC.

"There's a whole generation of actors, like myself, who worked in those companies and then moved into the classical repertoire, and what we experienced there in fringe and political theatre was to do with co-operation: being motivated by some communal urge to do that particular play at that particular time, so one's responsibility for the end result was greater than just that of an actor playing a part."

She is vehement in her support of subsidy, the life-line for many of these groups, and believes it should be used to enable top quality theatre to "reach and converse with every corner of the British Isles, from the tip of the Hebrides to the far corner of Devon, so you don't have this centralised thing, where everybody's got to be in London or bust.

"The other thing that I feel very strongly about is that theatre is an experience. It's not describable. It's not substitutable. It shouldn't be the poor competition for cinema or TV. It's unique, it's three-dimensional, and it's happening in this space in this time, with all these other people with me."

The breakthrough from fringe into mainstream success came with her portrayal of Ophelia in Richard Eyre's 1980 production of Hamlet at the Royal Court. "He'd seen me doing a Joint Stock production in which I played a character who was quiet and watchful and on the periphery of the action. It impressed him, and he cast me in a BBC film written by Ian McEwan, in which I played another quiet, watchful character who was on the periphery, but in the film she was at the centre. So when he came to do Hamlet immediately afterwards, for him it was a natural progression to cast me as Ophelia, who was yet another watchful, quiet character on the periphery." At this, Walter's face breaks into a smile as the repetition of the words "quiet", "watchful" and "periphery" begins to give our talk the air of a Monty Python sketch.

An ability to play what she has termed "suppressed emotion, insinuate hidden strengths", has characterized much of Walter's work so far, from her string of Shakespeare heroines and her Olivier-award-winning Masha in Chekhov's The Three Sisters for the RSC, to her most recent stage appearance in Timberlake Wertenbaker's funny and moving Three Birds Alighting on a Field, again at the Royal Court. She seems happy to go along with this, but expresses great frustration at the paucity of challenging roles for women.

"Quite a lot of modern writers write terrible parts for women. In fact, the reason why a lot of my fellow actresses do Shakespeare is because in some ways you get more of a voice than you do in a modern TV series, or West End play." However, even in Shakespeare she does not find an endless succession of great roles. "I'll say, well, Helena's a good part to play; Cleopatra's a good part to play; Gertrude is not a good part to play... And I don't think I want to play Katherine in The Shrew very much."

Walter's performance as Helena in Trevor Nunn's famous 1981 production of All's Well That Ends Well, also featuring Dame Peggy Ashcroft as the Countess of Rossillion, confirmed her as one of the most outstanding actresses of her generation. Critics heaped superlatives on the production, but generally with the rider that any success was achieved in spite of, rather than because of, this most underrated of plays - something that still irks her to this day. In fact, the inability of many critics to see what is obvious to the ordinary member of the audience crops up a number of times in our conversation.

"I just turned round and said, if you enjoyed the production, if it released the play for you, then stop saying it's a bad play. Because the fact is, Shakespeare wrote it to be performed, not to be read as a school text, and a lot of the problems that lie in the text are unknotted when you come to perform them.

"I think it's a very rich and complex play, but it's not easily categorizable. It doesn't instantly read as a comedy, and it doesn't instantly read as a tragedy. It has very many styles and forms, but they make for a variable and interesting evening. So, I wish all those literary people would shut up, and just admit that it was written to be performed, and let it get on with it!"

Having worked with Dame Peggy Ashcroft, in 1989 Walter went on to take the title role in what had been one of the former's greatest triumphs, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Aside from obvious feelings of nervousness upon accepting the role, did she feel daunted by her predecessor's legacy?

"Your interest in performing the play dominates your fear. Otherwise you wouldn't get up and do it at all. And the fact is that you either believe these plays are to be re-done every generation, or you don't. No performance is definitive and forever."

She goes on to discuss, almost wistfully, the ephemeral nature of theatre, the attempts to capture it in reviews and books that will always be unavailing. "If you weren't there, it's irrelevant. And so, if they couldn't see Peggy Ashcroft, they had to make do with me, and I did my best, and that's it." The sentence tails off into a laugh, and once again she smiles, a genuine modesty belying her own considerable achievement in the role.

Bill Alexander's glittering production, performed first in the intimate space of the RSC'S Swan Theatre, and later in the starker, more claustrophobic confines of The Pit, succeeded in capturing the poetic grandeur, dark humour and poignancy of Webster's tragedy. When the recently widowed Duchess first appears, a black cloak is swept from her shoulders, to the applause of her bejewelled courtiers. Free, now, to pursue her own desires, she courts and secretly marries her steward, Antonio, at the same time incurring the wrath of her Aragonese brothers, Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal: the former a psychotic, incestuously inclined; the latter coldly determined to protect the family honour.

"When it comes to those sort of plays, I just read the text over and over and over again on my own before I start to rehearse - just read it without making any big choices or decisions- so that the actual language and the rhythm of the language and the images seep into you."

She describes Webster's verse as being at times more contrived than Shakespeare's, more ornate than organic. "I don't want to sound pretentious, but it's like the difference between the atmosphere when you listen to Mozart, and the atmosphere when you listen to Schubert. Actors tune into that on a non-intellectual level: rhythms and music and textures and colours in language, that aren't just about why am I here and what am I doing, and why am I saying it?"

Walter's Duchess - proud and imperious when facing her murderers; tender, loving and even coy with Antonio - exhilaratingly drew forth the human and humane from the extraordinary. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of the production was when, at the point of death, she begged her maid, Cariola, to care for her children:

     "I pray thee, look thou giv'st my little boy
      Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl
      Say her prayers, ‘ere she sleep."

A breathless pause inserted between the final and penultimate words of the line, "I am Duchess of Malfi still", transformed it from a ringing declaration of spiritual impregnability, to the desperate cry of a woman attempting to hold on to her sense of self, amidst a terrifying physical and emotional battery.

"We worked out that she probably would have been married off to this Duke of Malfi because her family were trying to strengthen their ties with the Italian aristocracy. If she and Ferdinand were twins, they would have been separated - having been very, very close - aged about thirteen, which is puberty. So there was a hiccup in the natural evolution of their relationship which might explain his incestuous feelings towards her."

As for the cataclysmic scenes of death and destruction in the final act - "more like Hammer Horror films in some places, than a psychological drama" -  Walter is firmly of the opinion that they cannot be shied away from." You have to find some kind of stylistic way of acting that will take the audience from the very intimate, natural, domestic scenes, and won't leave them for the very melodramatic, frightening, almost ridiculous to us, revenge scenes, where everybody gets killed." She also believes that laughter and fear were so closely linked in the minds of the original Jacobean audience that the two would merge as the piles of corpses grew ever higher, without the cathartic nature of the experience being lost.

"It was a very lawless society. You could just take out personal vendettas and stab people on a street corner. Therefore, I think there was a genuine need to convert it into entertainment; to see that the bad guys bit the dust, and the good guys won in the end." There is a small silence, and her eyes twinkle. "You know, if you believe in God, and all that stuff."

A challenge of a very different sort was provided by Timberlake Wertenbaker's Three Birds Alighting on a Field. Walter's performance as Biddy Andreas, the repressed, Benenden-educated wife of a Greek millionaire, carried the emotional weight of this satire on the modern art world. Incisive to the point of caricature in its early scenes, it gradually revealed a depth of humanity that won over all but the stoniest onlookers.

"There are a few little hints that are dropped through the play of her interest in higher things than just shopping at Harrods; that she is somebody who's hankering after something else. The events in her life are causing her to question the status quo in a way that up until then she hasn't had to."

Walter talks with passion about "certain women who are not encouraged to use their minds", and whose husbands refuse to acknowledge them as people. "If they're affable, timid and not particularly heroic, they tend to concentrate on pleasing those around them, and fulfilling their duties. She was no great genius, but she's certainly a thinking person who in a very simple, naive, innocent way, hits the truth where some of the more sophisticated miss it. There were people in the audience who got that message absolutely, and related to her very strongly."

The feminist perspective - clearly important to her work - has been a recurrent sub-text of our conversation, and it brings me inevitably to The Men's Room. Walter laughs the instant its title passes my lips, obviously well used to questions about the controversial BBC serialization of Anne Oakley's novel.

She is happy that the serial provoked debate, and proud of the work done on it, but admits to having mixed feelings about the result. "I think the adaptation was imperfect. It's a very tall order to have adapted that book, anyway, for TV in six episodes. It covers ten years of a very complex relationship, which, in a book, can be explained by great chunks of internal monologue. On the screen, you just see their behaviour, and take up emotional stances about whether you like the people, or don't like the people.

"I do think there's a lot of misunderstanding between men and women, and if that got them talking to one another, that's good. But the frustration was that it necessarily trivialised something that could have been quite important."

The interview comes to an end, and Walter, a dark hat pressed over her head, slips out of the foyer into Sloane Square. Heading in the direction of the Royal Court, she is quickly swallowed up by the floods of people struggling home with their Christmas shopping. As I watch her departing figure, I recall Sir Ian McKellen saying that characters, when in extremis, are hurling insults, not descriptions. I begin to hope that somewhere a director will have sufficient imagination to cast a younger Queen Margaret than Gloucester's taunts would suggest; a younger Volumnia; a younger Cleopatra... In the case of Harriet Walter, such a risk could pay spectacular dividends.