Award-winning actress Amanda Harris is a Shakespearean stalwart, having performed in myriad productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe as well as other companies.
Her previous RSC productions include The Taming of the Shrew, Coriolanus and Two Noble Kinsmen, as well as 2004’s Othello, for which she won this year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios, triumphing over competition including Dame Judi Dench. At the Globe, she joined Kathryn Hunter’s 2003 all-female company in productions of Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew.
Elsewhere, Harris has appeared in Othello, Pericles (for Cheek by Jowl), Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear (both Bristol Old Vic) and Macbeth (Battersea Arts Centre). Her non-Shakespeare credits include The Constant Wife, Black Comedy/Real Inspector Hound, Closer to Heaven and Pride and Prejudice in the West End; Barbarians, Singer, Worlds Apart, Country Dancing, Travesties and Odyssey back at the RSC; Island of Slaves, One for the Road and Cause Celebre at Lyric Hammersmith; Tales from Hollywood, Donkey’s Years, Picasso’s Women, The Way of the World, The Servant, Andromeci and Vanity Fair.
On screen, Harris has been seen as Nancy in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and appeared in Midsomer Murders, The Vice, Touch of Frost and Take Me Home on television; and Jeeves and Wooster on film.
This summer, Harris has returned to the RSC. She’s already completed a limited engagement for the premiere of David Greig’s The American Pilot at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon. She’s now appearing in two productions in this year’s Comedies season in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre: A Midsummer Night's Dream, directed by Gregory Doran, in which she plays Titania; and As You Like It, directed by Dominic Cooke. In the latter, which has just started previews, Harris plays Celia alongside Lia Williams’ Rosalind. Following their Stratford repertory season, both of the Shakespeare productions will transfer to the West End (See News, 7 Jun 2005).
Date & place of birth
I was born in Adelaide, South Australia, in 1963. I was brought up in New Guinea, though I have English parents, and I came to this country when I was about 10 years old.
Lives now in
I live in London at the moment, and my whole flat is in storage because we’re in Stratford for so long. It’s actually worked out very well. I was getting rid of my flat in London anyway and I’m moving because I have a new relationship happening. I lived in Stratford for a while, but I’m still going to be living in London because my boyfriend runs a club in Soho so we have to stay in London. It is lovely actually because all the plays in the RSC season are about love, and when you’ve got someone new you are just walking on air, and I feel like that at the moment, which is wonderful.
I trained at Arts Ed. It was the only place that would look at me when I was 16. I was meant to go to Cheltenham Ladies’ College and then go on to higher education and become a psychiatrist, but I snuck off and went to audition for drama school. My parents, certainly at the time, would have preferred me to be a psychiatrist. But I think they wanted me to be happy more than anything, so when I got into drama school they sort of said “OK, if that’s what you want to do”.
What made you decide to become an actor?
I’m not quite sure. I know that sounds weird. I went to a strange little private girls’ school when I first came to England, and we used to go on a lot of trips and we quite often went to Stratford. I remember seeing Ian McKellen as Romeo and Patrick Stewart, who has become a good friend of mine, as Oberon. I really loved it, and then I just suddenly thought, “ah, I can do this”. I’m lucky I work a lot, it’s a tough business.
First big break
It was very lucky. My first week after drama school Declan Donellan, who runs Cheek by Jowl, approached me. I was only 18 and he offered me Desdemona in Othello, which was fantastic. I then stayed on and did Vanity Fair and Pericles with him.
Career highlights to date
I have been in the business for a long time now, but after 24 years I still like working because nothing really changes in terms of the important issues in plays. Ultimately, most of the best stories are about love, jealousy, despair, hatred, and each generation has to deal with those issues. I’ve been enjoying doing RSC plays, but then it’s nice to go off and earn a bit more money on the telly.
What do awards mean to you?
My Olivier is at my boyfriend’s club and it’s wearing a scarf at the moment! I think you do have to treat the awards with the reverence they deserve, but at the same time, there are people who do some amazing work throughout their careers and never get one. I have been really lucky. After 24 years it is like, “wohoo, but now what do I do with it?”!
The work I did with Cheek by Jowl was fantastic. It was all new. We had to build our own sets and iron our own costumes, it was like a real little community. I loved playing Kate in Taming of the Shrew, and I really do love playing Titania in Midsummer. I have loved working at the RSC all the years I’ve worked there and it’s about ten years now. It has such a good atmosphere, everyone gets on well and looks after each other and it’s really good fun. I’m staying in a flat in the same building I stay in every time, and I have all the cast in the adjoining flats. I’m also in Vivien Leigh’s old dressing room, which is amazing. You can smell the history… or maybe just the sweat!
I’m getting on very well with all the RSC people. My lovely Oberon, Joe Dixon, Malcolm Storry (who plays Bottom), and my co-star in As You Like It is the lovely Lia Williams. As Rosalind cross-dresses, Lia is my leading man really. We get on really well together and have formed the kind of bond Rosalind and Celia have in the play. It’s weird because you can’t cast that, you never know if people are going to get on or not unless you specifically choose actresses who are already friends, and then that’s dodgy because they can fall out.
Dominic Cooke, Gregory Doran, Adrian Noble, Bill Alexander, all the greats; and I love them all for different reasons. For example, Greg always makes sure I’m not too camp and don’t go over the top, while Dom is very specific and tells you what to do in great detail. Good directors turn you, hopefully, into a good actress and give you an idea of the big picture and where you fit into that. I’d love to direct myself one day. I’d eventually love to direct Shakespeare, but I wouldn’t start with it because it’s so complex. I couldn’t presume to be able to direct Shakespeare without any experience.
One of my closest friends is Peter Flannery, who wrote Our Friends in the North, and he’s brilliant. I also like Tom Stoppard. There are just so many I can’t quite think of any others off the top of my head. I tend to do so much classical stuff - unless it’s for television, which seems completely different and very modern. But actually the themes are still the same even in TV as they are in Shakespeare so I suppose it isn’t really that different.
What roles would you most like to play still?
As I’m getting older, I’d love to have another go at Beatrice and Lady Macbeth, and then when I’m really old - well, not really old but getting a bit older - Cleopatra. That’s the kind of road I’m going on really. I would also love to do The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan. There’s a whole world out there and I haven’t yet chipped the top of the iceberg. It’s definitely getting better for older actresses than it used to be. There used to be a lot of an age gap. You went from ingénue to old woman and there was nothing in between, which made it very difficult for women my age. I think what Gregory Doran has done with the Gunpowder season is terrific and there are so many parts for this age group. The thing is, acting is really a big risk as it’s so unpredictable. I have been so lucky in my career and I hope to keep working, but I can’t guarantee it. To anyone else, I’d say have a back-up career and finish your education before you consider going into acting. I know I’m a risk-taker, but for most people it’s so much nicer to have that security.
If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I would have been a psychiatrist as that’s what I was going to train to do. I also like the idea of being a book illustrator. I think that would be fun. When I was a very young child of about three, I wanted to be Mozart. I used to write out bits of music and I’d give it to my mother to sing. I thought I was very clever writing all that music, but one day I realised she was conning me when I gave her the same song twice and she sang different tunes. I don’t play any classical instruments now, but I do play the spoons and I’ve decided I’m very good at that. There’s even a bit of spoon playing at the end of As You Like It.
What would you advise the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
To understand the importance of it. Theatre needs to be sponsored and I think it needs to be cherished. Let’s face it, they’ve got lot on their plate at the moment; but the government does not give theatre the importance it should. I know for hundreds of years actors have been seen as rogues and vagabonds who have lightened people’s days, but that is an important job. We’re easily dismissed, but as well as being entertaining, theatre is part of our history. The way I see it, we are all doing a service. We are serving the people who come to see our plays and the government is serving the people who elected them by supporting the plays.
Favourite after-show haunts
In London I go to my boyfriend’s pub. He’s been my best friend for seven years and we only got together in the last few months. It is a great pub, full of mainly artists or writers - very few actors, but it’s nice to talk about other things apart from work. It is only open from 3-11.00pm so I go there to see him but it’s not convenient for other actors as they might not get out of the theatre in time. When I’m in Stratford, the place to go is the Dirty Duck. Years ago, I used to be there every night, but in the last three weeks I’ve been once. It’s a rite of passage, you have to do it in your 20s; when you get to my age, you’ve kind of done it. These days, I tend to come back to my flat here in Stratford rather than go out. It’s a lovely flat and it’s overlooking the weir, so anyone who wants to go out to a smoky pub rather than stay in here must be mad! Sometimes when some of the younger ones have had a good night out, they pop their heads through my window coming back from the pub late at night and say “Are you awake?” and I say “no”. I look after the younger ones in the company, they are a great bunch.
Oh, I have so many books. When my boyfriend Michael and I were putting my things into storage, he was complaining about how many books I have - I have thousands. At the moment, I’m reading the new Harry Potter book, which is good fun and escapist, but I just read that to chill out after performances. I’m also reading The A-Z of Paradoxes, which is quite a contrast. I always read because I’m not very good at watching TV, although I do love movies. I’m very boring with my TV viewing and watch things like University Challenge, so reading Harry Potter is my equivalent of a soap opera. I have also gone Sudoku mad. It’s very logical and I get really into it.
Favourite holiday destinations
I’m going to go to Poland when I have a bit of time off. My boyfriend is Polish and my mother was Jewish so I want to go and see Auschwitz; that will be very moving. I think I am at the right time in my life to do that now. I’m trying to learn Polish at the moment because I don’t think Michael has ever had anyone to talk Polish to apart from his family before, so I’m working on that and then that can be our thing. The only Polish I know at the moment, though, is “you’re very gorgeous”. I very rarely go on holiday, only because I haven’t really had a break in so long that, when I do get a week off, it’s so lovely to stay in bed with a good book. The thought of packing and sorting out passports and things becomes a burden when you only get a short break, you just want to spend every moment relaxing. At the RSC, we do lots of extra-curricular things as well as the performances. I’ve done a poetry session, opening the poetry season at Stratford a couple of weeks ago; and I work at the Shakespeare Institute. We also did an activity where we read out lots of poems kids had been asked to write about Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was great fun, and rather bizarre. We also had a jazz night with play readings.
If you could swap places with one person for a day, who would it be?
Um, that’s a very difficult one. Anyone at all? I would like to be Jesus for a day. I’m not a Christian - I’m not anything - but his philosophy on being generous and kind to everyone is a good one, and it would be interesting to see how that would work and how people react to him on a day-to-day basis.
What made you want to accept the role of Celia in this production of As You Like It?
Celia is the complete antithesis to Titania, so I love playing such contrasting roles. Celia is so wry and ironic and naïve as well. I call her the naughty angel because she loves Rosalind and looks after her and she can be very funny, but she’s also very sceptical of the whole love thing – until she falls in love herself. She’s great. As Titania, I wear very revealing clothes, which I am really only just getting away with now at my age, and she is very seductive; Celia is a big geek with Harry Potter glasses.
Do you think Shakespeare productions work best in a traditional style or when they’re updated?
I think whatever works for the production is appropriate. That’s what’s so wonderful about Shakespeare. It can apply to any time and place so you can do it however. It does need to have a reason, though. I’ve seen productions where someone has just done a clever idea for the staging, but there’s nothing really behind it, no reason for it, and then that takes away the whole point of Shakespeare. Our production of As You Like It is set in the 1950s, when it was still the case that women were thought to have their place and had to behave how others saw fit. Celia and Rosalind want to escape that kind of world – and Celia is very much a feminist – so that works very well I think.
How does the stage at Stratford compare with the Globe?
Because I know the old RSC stage so well, when I was at the Globe in our first preview of Richard III, it was a real shock. It’s like watching a lot of birds fluttering because everyone is standing there and you can see everybody when you’re on stage at the Globe, and they’re all fanning themselves with programmes. There’s a lot of audience involvement – mainly because you can look directly at everyone in the auditorium. You have to take everybody in, so you have to glance at everyone at some point, which I eventually managed to do. It became known as the Harris Sweep - it’s technically quite tricky. At the Swan in Stratford, I can’t see most of the audience – except for some of them when I’m in my flowery bower, and then I have to look away again because it scares me – it’s quite high up there!
- Amanda Harris was speaking to Caroline Ansdell
As You Like It opens on 17 August 2005 (previews from 5 August) at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, where it runs in repertoire with A Midsummer Night's Dream and two other productions in the Comedies season until 29 October 2005. From December, all four Comedies will transfer for a 16-week engagement at the West End’s Novello Theatre (formerly the Strand).