Harriet Walter's CV is the War And Peace of résumés; you need to sit down with a cup of tea before reading the extensive tome. Not only is it packed, but it is packed with quality productions; from Laurence Olivier Award-winning performances in Twelfth Night and Three Sisters, to the acclaimed 1995 film Sense And Sensibility. Walter’s latest role is one that she has coveted throughout her career and has been playing since April 2006, Cleopatra (in Antony And Cleopatra). Matthew Amer met one of the UK’s leading actresses backstage at the Novello.
The stage door at the Novello does not feel very Egyptian on a cold January afternoon, but then, Patrick Stewart does not look very Roman as he wanders past in a baseball cap. Walter's dressing room, in contrast to the opulence and luxury of her character's palace, is quite plain and understated. Walter sits reserved, and possibly slightly dubious, in unfussy black trousers and top; calm, reserved and with a face which is, for want of a better word, friendly.
"I do think that there are certain parts, if you are lucky enough to play them, that are bigger than you, and they stretch you," Walter says, talking in particular about her experience of playing Cleopatra. "I don't think you become a bigger person, but you develop certain muscles you didn't have before." As an actress, these are the roles she cherishes above all others, the ones that challenge her to become more than she is.
Walter had wanted to play Cleopatra for a very long time, but the situation had never been right. The combination of the Swan theatre in Stratford, where this production was originally performed, director Gregory Doran and leading man Patrick Stewart, in contrast, was perfect.
"I love the West End; it feels buzzy and alive"
Walter has worked with RSC Associate Director Doran in the past, most notably on the 1999 production of Macbeth, opposite Sir Antony Sher. She enjoys the relationship she has with the director as she "trusts" him when working with Shakespeare; his ideas and direction flow from the text itself, rather than the director imposing himself on Shakespeare's words. "Not only does it work in terms of making the production coherent," she explains, "but it makes all the actors in the production understand what they're doing, so down to the smallest part you get this integrity which I think the audience picks up on. I think it's what gives a lot of his productions that satisfying 'I got it' or 'I understood it.'"
She's unashamedly discerning when it comes to directors, and admits to testing them as a schoolchild would a teacher. "If a director portrays any bulls**t," she confides, smiling, "we've got a beep that goes off in our brain."
As for co-star Stewart: "He's a proper company member," she says, "that's what he started his career as and that's what he missed through all the stardom of America and wanted to get back to. Obviously he can do both now. His story is quite different to mine in one way, but we both like being members of the company, so we've got a whole sort of language and aspiration in common."
For the on-stage lovers, the off-stage relationship was more difficult to build than one might imagine. This was not because there was any tension between the two leads – "[Stewart is] the most down-to-earth, easy person to be with" – but because, due to the nature of the play, when one of them is off-stage, the other is invariably on-stage. So, while the play is on, "There isn't any chatting, getting-to-know-you time". Of course, after the best part of a year working and touring together, Walter says the leads are now "pals", though Stewart's love of football is yet to rub off.
After opening at the Swan, Stratford in April 2006, Antony And Cleopatra toured to America. The company played in large, draughty and cold university theatres. It's a process Walter recommends to every actor, as on returning she appreciated the West End's "wonderfully cosy" theatres even more. "And I love all the silly paraphernalia," she continues, "the cherubs and cupids and golden rubbish all over the place. It's wonderful. I love the atmosphere; the tackiness backstage. Signs on the back stairs saying 'Be Careful. Floor Slippery.' I love the actual West End area; it feels buzzy and alive."
"There is a crazy side to theatre in this country"
Though Walter has waited and anticipated playing this role, she is well aware of the legacy she takes on by portraying the Egyptian queen on stage. The much-coveted role has been played by many of the stage's greatest names, including Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Peggy Ashcroft. Walter is philosophical, not worrying about what other actresses may have done, but focussing on what she is trying to create. She is quick to emphasise the point that whatever she brings to the role, it would be nothing without the rest of the company; her performance, however good, would not work in different circumstances. "It's not only that that takes the pressure off," she says, "it's what theatre should be about; it's about a community of people."
When Walter talks about theatre, widely as an industry or in more specific terms, her passion for the job and the art form is clear to see. Someone who did not care would not get as frustrated about short-fallings as she does.
She does not shy away from the often delicate topic of a permanent London home for the RSC, but makes her viewpoint clear: "It makes life a lot easier if you have got somewhere that's identified with the RSC, but I don't see what's wrong with doing a season in a place like this that will become associated with it. You don't say 'Why doesn't Glyndebourne have a London centre?' You don't say 'Why doesn't Chichester have a London centre?' I just think, why shouldn't you have other centres? But that's idealistic, because people won't go up the M40 for an hour and a half or two hours. In Newcastle, people come from Scotland and see shows; we get a bit spoilt in London."
Walter is a great ambassador for the British theatre industry, and British arts in general. She knows what she loves about the industry, but she can see its problems: "There is a crazy side to theatre in this country," she continues. "It is one of our top attractions to visitors and it isn't really accorded that status by the government. Time and time again on word-of-mouth and meeting people face to face, people put the best theatre they've seen as the most exciting experience they've ever had.
"I'd like to widen the experience and I think it's really difficult that it costs so much and it's difficult to park your car, and it's difficult to get here and it's difficult to get home if you don't bring your car, and it's difficult to eat. Everything is made so difficult. I think we do our work; it's everyone around who needs to make it easier for the public to have the experience. They are working on it. They try and do deals and make things cheaper, but it's an ongoing thing."
"After you've played Cleopatra, there's not a lot that can top that"
This is not a new-found political voice. Back in the early 1980s, Walter was among a group of actresses who spoke out about the male-centric regime at the RSC. She felt that women were not being given the chances they deserved to perform classical roles; the roles she feels stretch you as a performer. Two decades on, and she is no happier about the situation. "I'm very aware of it because I'm an actor, actress in this case," she explains. "I'm not a militant type of person. I joined the bandwagon, I certainly didn't drive it, but I'm finding it interesting that we're still saying the same things now and that somehow all sorts of issues got addressed over the last 25 years and somehow feminism has not really. In some ways women have not made the progress you thought they should have, and certainly in this area of drama and representation in film, TV and theatre. It's not a good story."
Spreading the story of the experience of a woman in the theatrical world is one reason Walter wrote the book Other People's Shoes, a collection of recollections, anecdotes and a little advice about acting. Once she had conquered the coyness that prevented her embarking on the project – "I wasn’t a celebrity enough to make an interesting memoir" – and gained support from girls "saying write it for us", Walter put pen to paper. She says "[She] wanted people to understand what I did for a living. I really wrote it for the audience, but it's become a book that actors like reading.”
Her current book project is something slightly different and at the moment is actually a collection of 40 images hanging in the dress circle bar of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. "They say write about what you know," she says. "I thought, I know about being middle-aged, I know about ageism and the pressure to look young, and questioning the whole thing about why is it good to be young and bad to be old. Then there was something about people's faces that said everything in some language that was more eloquent than anything I could write." And so the book was put on hold while the exhibition takes centre stage. That will change. Walter hopes to bring words and images together at some point, but at the moment she has to play Cleopatra.
The problem with playing such a dominant, soul-filling character is that when your time in their skin finishes, the following job has to compete. "It's like having a great lover in your life," Walter explains, "you don’t want to go for somebody who's the same because they won't compare as well. So you want something completely different. I'm very aware that after you've played Cleopatra, there's not a lot that can top that in this sphere, so it means that I want to almost change the sphere I work in rather completely because I will always be comparing it to Cleopatra."
Sounds ominous, doesn't it? But Walter gives her assurance that she's not leaving the theatre behind, rather that she probably won't be working too closely with Mr Shakespeare for a while, which, if you heard her talk about his work, will probably be as much of a wrench for her as not acting at all