Magazine article The New Yorker

Women's Work

Magazine article The New Yorker

Women's Work

Article excerpt

WOMEN'S WORK

Dame Harriet Walter is regarded as one of the greatest living Shakespearean actors: in the past decade, she has delivered revelatory interpretations of Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth with the Royal Shakespeare Company. But because of her gender and her age--she is sixty-five--the roles available to her are dwindling. "Shakespeare just doesn't do mothers," she said the other morning, in the lobby of St. Ann's Warehouse, on the Dumbo waterfront. "In one way, he's very honest--he didn't know much about women at that age. But he didn't know much about so many things, and he could get into the Moor of Venice, so why couldn't he understand an older woman? The longer I live with him, the more that feels like a sad little disconnect for me."

Fortunately, Walter has discovered a partial remedy for her Shakespeare problem. This month, she takes on the title role of "Henry IV" in an all-female production of the play, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. (It originated at the Donmar Warehouse, in London.) Two years ago, the company performed an all-female "Julius Caesar," also at St. Ann's Warehouse. Both productions are set in a women's prison, with the actors playing prisoners who are playing Shakespeare. "Many of the younger actors have said it has really helped, because you go, 'Oh, God, I can't play Prince Hal, but I can play a prisoner who is playing Prince Hal,' so it's a way of accessing something that's true to you," Walter said.

Dame Harriet Walter

Walter and her colleagues worked in rehearsal on their body language. "It was a question of inhabiting a body that felt unapologetic about taking up space. So we will sit like this"--Walter, who was wearing dark-blue pants and a dark-purple wool coat, spread her knees, like the stick figure in the monitory poster on the subway--"because a man will go like that. It is sort of getting behind the person who owns that kind of a body." They sought to diminish their reliance on gestures that indicated submissiveness--Walter folded her hands on her breast by way of example--and to eliminate automatic vocal patterns. "Sometimes women do what is called devoicing, which is when they deliberately soften their voices so as to be non-threatening," she said, with a demonstrative huskiness. "All these techniques we don't even know we are doing suddenly come up in the rehearsal room, and they become blocks to the audience's believing who we are. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.