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Harriet Walter On ... Am dram & why she's doing an all-female Julius Caesar

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Actress Harriet Walter, who was appointed a Dame last year, is a mentor on Sky Arts' new series Nation's Best Am Dram, which begins tonight (14 November 2012 at 9pm).

Walter's extensive career includes numerous credits with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where she was made an associate artist in 1987. Her recent stage appearances include Antony and Cleopatra opposite Patrick Stewart for the RSC, Women Beware Women at the National and Mary Stuart at the Donmar Warehouse.

She returns to the Donmar later this month to play Brutus alongside Frances Barber (Caesar), Jenny Jules (Cassius) and Cush Jumbo (Mark Antony) in Phyllida Lloyd's all-female staging of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

Tell us about Nation's Best Am Dram
It's a sort of knockout format, similar to several other shows with rounds that have to be passed. One group has to drop out each week. Long before I came into it there was a whittling down from 600 applicants to a shortlist of eight. The panel of judges - Miriam Margolyes, Bill Kenwright and Quentin Letts - may have come in at the 200 mark, but by the time I got to it there were eight companies competing for eight mentors from the professional theatre, of which I was one.

Judges Bill Kenwright, Miriam Margoyles & Quentin Letts

Each mentor (the others are Roger Allam, Niamh Cusack, Julie Graham, Jill Halfpenny, Paterson Joseph, Martin Shaw and Richard Wilson) was assigned to one of the companies. In the first round half of the group did Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and the other half did Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. Four groups got through and four got knocked out. There were two heats so the best two out of each four remained to do a bit of King Lear. The winning group get to perform in the West End.

So it’s a sort of X Factor for Am Dram?
Yes I guess so, but what’s important is that it’s a team being chosen. I was blessed with the Strathclyde Theatre Group because they were a terrific team that I could completely support. I’m sure there were other groups that I might have been more critical of. I was probably a bit of a soft cop because I thought they were actually doing very well. I was looking for the spirit of theatre, which is a team game. I think quite a lot of both amateurs and professionals do it because they want to show off individually, but they were selected because they were a good group.

Is one of the aims to challenge the oft-heard Am Dram stereotypes?
Absolutely. In fact I had a bit of a prejudice before it started that amateur dramatic people were mostly those who are very good at singing or telling jokes or doing accents and therefore think they should to be an actor. But actually I started to see that it's a great community occupation, with talent from all sorts of levels of society and walks of life. It’s a fantastically good piece of social binding I think. And the production team were quite serious about respecting the companies - they're not trying to make silly asses of people on TV for public entertainment. And if nothing else comes out of it I hope that people will be slightly disabused of the idea that acting is just about showing off.

Do you have any experience of Am Dram yourself?
I proudly boast that two amateur theatre companies turned me down when I was about 17. I was born and bred in London so I had competition from the whole of London - they were quite highbrow and snooty and had no need for me.

Is it easy to describe what marks the difference between a professional and an amateur?
I would hesitate to say across the board that there's a degree of talent that professionals have that is superior to amateurs. I think there are plenty of amateurs who are better than some professionals but there are plenty who aren’t and who wouldn’t get anywhere near the stage if they weren’t doing it for fun. I don’t think that’s true of the groups we were involved with; on the whole they were good and sometimes very good. There's obviously a lifestyle difference between amateurs and professionals - but then maybe the amateurs have the last laugh because they earn a steady income and don't have to tour.

Your next role on stage is Brutus in Julius Ceaser at the Donmar - how long has the project been building for?
I don’t know how long it’s been in Phyllida Lloyd's mind but she first started talking to me about it in June. I knew very little about it, but if you don’t take risks then you never find out.

It’s a very headline-grabbing production
I’m slightly reluctant about this headline grabbing because I like to experiment in a private setting and then bring it out when it's really sure of itself. The bottom line is there are a lot of all male productions going on at the moment and there are a lot of new plays being written with a predominantly male cast. TV is better it does offer quite a lot of parts for women, but the movie industry is notoriously male dominated. There is an amazing imbalance to redress; we’ve been talking about it for a long time.

Have you long wanted to play male Shakespearean roles?
I’ve often been asked "why don’t you play Hamlet?", and I used to think 'well I can’t think of a justification, I don’t know how it would shed light on the play'. But now I’m less apologetic; we’re 52% of the population and in drama schools there are far more female applicants. In my year at drama school I remember the women being much more mature and developed and talented then the boys, but they got whittled down much earlier on. There is an incredible imbalance that the average person still doesn’t see.

Would you like to see the establishment of an all-female Shakespeare company?
I rather question the legal rights of single-gender companies such as Propeller because in any other field there would be sex discrimination issues. So I don't know if I can answer it by setting up an all-female equivalent, but if that is ok to do then I’d be interested. There are so many aspects to be considered, predominantly whether it can throw light on a play to have a female cast. We’ve had Jean Genet in the 1950’s having black people playing white roles, and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine using tricks of casting that has a jolting effect and makes you question why aren’t women running the country.

It’s a good thing to present before the public, even if it’s for no other reason than giving females the chance to act. If they have fewer opportunities they’ll be less able; it’s a vicious circle. I’m thinking of the future - who’s going to play Cleopatra in 2040? So if there’s any reason to do it it's to train up young people to have the experience of playing what I term 'motoring roles'. Women very seldom motor a play. We’ve got to have that experience and acquire those skills.

Do you think the production will kickstart more of its type?
What I certainly don't want is for this to be a one off, for people to think 'we've done that, we've done women, we've done an all female'. If it doesn't give rise to more all-female productions I think in some way we’ll have failed. But however successful or unsuccessful the outcome I think it's a very interesting project.

So with gender no barrier, what would be your dream role?
I’d love to play Macbeth - I think having played Lady Macbeth I understand him. But then I have too short a life ahead of me and I want to do so many things. I want to do more comedy - I’ve been doing quite a bit of comedy in TV and film and I’d like to do some on stage. It's not that I haven’t done comedy before it's just that actors tend to be seen as one thing or the other, and I want to occasionally be seen as the other.

- Harriet Walter was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Nation’s Best Am Dram broadcasts for six episodes of one hour from 9pm on Wednesday 14 November. Julius Caesar runs at the Donmar Warehouse from 4 December 2012 to 9 February 2013 (previews from 29 November)


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