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Harriet Walter: Playing male roles has given me ‘new lease of life’

Harriet Walter, who will become patron of Nuffield Southampton Theatres Harriet Walter, who will become patron of Nuffield Southampton Theatres
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Harriet Walter has credited performing male parts in Shakespeare plays for rejuvenating her career, claiming she should be “playing dead bodies in Casualty”.

The actor was speaking at a special performance of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of The Tempest, held to celebrate the venue’s new scheme offering 25% of its tickets free to under-25s.

Walter, who is appearing in a trilogy of Shakespeare plays played by an all-female cast, said: “Since 2012 I have been putting on a prison uniform, cutting my hair, when I should be playing dead bodies in Casualty. I have been given a new lease of life.”

She added that the word she associated with the Donmar’s Shakespeare project was “open”.

“It’s been a project of opening every door you can think of; opening and crashing down barriers and challenging everything we suppose an audience wants to see. It’s been amazing to find how receptive and open to our new challenge the public has been,” she said.

Speaking at the same event, Donmar Warehouse executive producer Kate Pakenham said she felt there had been a “movement within the industry” in terms of gender equality.

“In 2012, I don’t think we’d have imagined that four years later we would see female Hamlets and a female King Lear on major stages across the UK,” she said.

Pakenham added she felt there had been a “sea change” in the industry.

“I think there has been a movement in women’s choices on stages, and politics and wider society has also grown over that period. It’s a good place for us to be,” she said.

Phyllida Lloyd, the director of the all-female trilogy, which also includes Henry IV, said the initiative had begun “unashamedly as a job-for-the-girls project”.

“There was no bones about it: jobs for the girls and representation for girls in the audience, who I thought should at least see 50% of their number whenever they went to the theatre. Then we thought: ‘To hell with that, [let’s go for] 100%.’”

Lloyd also criticised “a few men of a certain age” who challenged the concept of an all-female cast playing Shakespeare. Recently, playwright Ronald Harwood spoke out about women taking male roles.

She later expanded on this, and said the all-female Shakespeare productions had won most critics over because of “the paucity of ingredients” that make up the play.

“The simplicity, the rough magic, the poor theatre. It’s harder to knock us as we’re already down,” she said.

She added: “We are saying we are the most unlikely group – wrong in all respects for every role we are playing. The wrong gender, the wrong shape, the wrong ethnicity – but watch us fly. At the root of it, what we are trying to give you is the greatest verse speaking you will hear. That is the sleight of hand: that we look a bit like refugees from our culture but we then want to show how we can fly.”

Pakenham and Lloyd also used the event to speak about the importance of the free ticketing scheme, called Young and Free.

Lloyd said the scheme had attracted individuals and school parties, with teachers claiming they would not otherwise have been “able to take a class to see a play” because of a lack of funding.

Pakenham said the free ticketing scheme “felt pretty fundamental to us” and was making a “statement about the value of arts for young people”.

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