Brutus and Other Heroines By Harriet Walter

Lynne Lancaster

Dame Harriet Walter gives insight into some of the roles she has played.
Brutus and Other Heroines By Harriet Walter

Book cover:  Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare's roles for Women by Harriet Walter. Image via Nick Hern Books.

Apart from the Shakespearean characters listed in this book, Dame Harriet Walter has played many other great classical stage roles including: the Duchess of Malfi, Hedda Gabler, Nina in Thomas Kilroy’s Irish version of Chekhov’s The Seagull, Masha in Three Sisters, Anna Petrovna in Ivanov, Hester in The Deep Blue Sea and Elizabeth I in Schiller’s Mary Stuar. She has also performed in several contemporary classics including Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, Harold Pinter’s Old Times, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, and as Linda in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. She has created roles in new plays including Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Yasmina Reza’s Life x 3 to name just two. She has also made many TV and film appearances.

Written by one of the leading practitioners of performing art in the UK, this is a fascinating and insightful book regarding some of the leading Shakespearean female characters and a couple of male ones too. In particular it focuses on Ophelia, Imogen, Helena, Portia, Beatrice, Viola, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and also Brutus and Henry IV.

How does a contemporary actress of the 21st Century approach these roles? Given that they were written over 400 years ago how and why are they challenging to play and can we still relate to them? Questions are asked, was Shakespeare a misogynist? Why are there almost no roles for older women in his plays? It also considers the cross dressing of the period and how in Shakespeare’s time young boys played all the women’s parts as women were not allowed to perform.

Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare's roles for Women is divided into ten chapters, some reworked from previous books Dame Harriet Walter has written. At the start of each chapter there are splendid black and white production photos of Dame Harriet Walter in the various roles she is discussing. Research, rehearsals and interactions with her various colleagues and directors are described. Has a particular directorial approach changed her thoughts and attack to the character? How does she approach the heavy famous roles such as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth? How does Dame Harriet Walter discover the trigger, the key ‘aha’ moment that illuminates understanding of the character? Does intensive analysis of the text help?

Also of great interest are the two final chapters where Dame Harriet Walter describes working with Phyllida Lloyd’s all female company on Julius Caesar (where she played Brutus) and Henry IV (in the eponymous role) part of the company’s Shakespeare trilogy (next stop The Tempest). How does a woman adjust to playing a man, emotionally, mentally and physically? Are there differences? Is anything different in rehearsal/performance?

For Ophelia (in Hamlet) Dame Harriet Walter analyses – how does one play madness? How was Ophelia shaped by her dominating controlling father Polonius? She has no real sense of self or integrity, unlike some of the other Shakespearean characters.

Dame Harriet Walter regards Helena (from All’s Well That Ends Well, one of the ‘problem plays’) as imperfect but worthy, intense, ambitious and extremely complicated. She also asks how one approaches female virtue and chastity in the 21st century as compared to Shakespeare’s time, and the patriarchal views turning women into an object ‘female virtue is a state of being, rather than doing‘ and how women were expected to be passive, pure and obedient. The difficulties of playing Imogen  in Cymbeline) are catalogued.There is a major chapter on playing Lady Macbeth, and we learn her thoughts on feisty Beatrice (from Much Ado About Nothing). Then comes an in- depth analysis of playing Brutus (in Julius Caesar) and Henry IV, both productions being set in prisons.

The conclusion to the book is a long letter to Shakespeare about his writing for contemporary audiences and his female characters. There is an excellent table of contents at the front of the book and a list of productions Dame Harriet Walter has appeared in from 1974 until now . I would, however, have liked an index at the back and it would be fascinating to read her thoughts on the third play of the current trilogy (Prospero in The Tempest). It is interesting to note that Dame Helen Mirren has also played Prospero (for example), and that here in Sydney a season of Richard III performed by the Bell Shakespeare with Kate Mulvany in the eponymous role is just about to open, while in London the RSC has just opened a Twelfth Night with Tamsin Grieg as Malvolia. 


Rating: 4 Stars out of 5

Brutus and Other Heroines: Playing Shakespeare's roles for Women By Harriet Walter

ISBN: 9781848422933
Format: 216mm x 138mm
Imprint: Nick Hern Books
Published: 27th October 2016

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.