Tag Archives: Harriet Walter

“Death of a Salesman” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Gregory Doran’s revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman fully justifies the director’s claim that this is the greatest American play of the 20th century. Although rooted in post-war US society, Miller’s family tragedy and critique of capitalism transcends time and place. Perhaps recent economic woes make this powerful play freshly pertinent: the loss of job security for long-serving salesman Willy Loman rings alarm bells for us all. And perhaps, too – aided by our increased awareness of dementia – Willy’s tragic decline has added poignancy. Just as likely, the play is simply a masterpiece.

Antony Sher is confident and controlled in the lead role. Clearly passionate about the part, Sher projects an intensity that enfolds you. It’s an exceptionally subtle and intelligent delivery: for all Willy’s faults, we see why his family loves him, he isn’t made an underdog and there are no excuses for his behaviour – but he still retains our sympathy. Willy’s confidence seesaws constantly, moments of self-doubt are carefully hinted at. When Willy is presented with the gas pipe he plans to kill himself with, Sher’s whole body becomes frozen. It’s a tremendous theatrical moment.

Backed by Harriet Walter as Willy’s wife, with Alex Hassell and Sam Marks as his sons, the family struggles with the delusions of success and excess of optimism that construct their dreams. This is an unbeatable quartet of performances. The fight to see facts instead of fantasy is a relentless focus. Willy’s memories, possibly false, presented as the consequence of his age and misfortune, slide into the action dynamically. The downward spiral of the whole family in the second half is gut-wrenching and miraculously suspense-filled. We can all predict what’s coming but Doran makes it riveting, obeying the play’s demand that “attention must be paid”.

Until 18 July 2015


Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Winter’s Tales at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

With a venue as special as the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, it seems fitting to host a variety of events. The reconstructed Jacobean indoor theatre, which opened last year adjacent to The Globe, has already staged opera as well as plays and an eclectic mix of musical concerts. The latest idea is Winter’s Tales – a series of readings by candlelight with musical accompaniment.

Stories by Daphne du Maurier brought the season to a spine-chilling conclusion, following on from work by Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, D H Lawrence, James Joyce and F Scott Fitzgerald. Harriet Walter gave a great reading, joining a list of equally impressive previous performers: Penelope Wilton, Deborah Findlay, Roger Allam and Aidan Gillen.

Walters read The Happy Valley, a surreal ghost story set in Cornwall, and The Birds, which was surprisingly just as taut and exciting as Hitchcock’s film. Being read to is an incredible indulgence – the perfect Christmas treat. And while the dark nights really add to spooky stories, it’s to be hoped the theatre continues these events so we can have this blissful experience all year round.


Photo by Peter May

“Henry IV” at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s all-female production of Julius Caesar was one of the theatrical highlights of last year. Now director Phyllida Lloyd returns with Henry IV, set once again in a women’s prison. An amalgam of Henry IV Parts I and II, the text is performed by the ‘inmates’, making this two plays in one in more than one sense, since we have Shakespeare and also the staging of Shakespeare. It’s layered, obviously, but what makes the production fascinating is the weight given to the prisoners’ own staging – is it the focus or just an addition? The question is open for the audience.

Henry IV is a riveting evening, not least because you want to know what has been done to the text. But it starts out dreadfully. With a nod to the trend for immersive theatre, the audience waits over the road in the Seven Dials Club, where you can use the bar and the loo (don’t forget this – there’s no interval and the show is two hours plus) before walking over the road and entering via the back stairs. Punch Drunk it ain’t. Although a few prison posters threaten punishment for those using phones – incarceration is too good for them after all – the whole effort seems feeble.

Once the acting starts, Henry IV is magnificent. Clare Dunne plays Prince Hal, the hero of both plays, with startling energy. Caught between the responsibilities inheritance brings, embodied by the superb Harriet Walter in the title role, and another father figure – Falstaff. As the rogue knight, Ashley McGuire gives a tremendous performance, fully embodying the ambiguities this production offers – it’s a great Falstaff but the sense of a disturbed woman in prison who is taking on the role is tangible. This triangle of ‘men’ is the focus of the production and the ramifications, when performed by female characters in a jail, positively outshine any episode of cult women’s prison drama Orange is the New Black.

When Shakespeare and the performance being staged by the prisoners intersect, Henry IV is electric. Some adlibbing results in an emotional break to the action, highlighting the sexism of the original text along with the cruelty of prison life. And the whole evening is abruptly cut short by the prison guards – leaving you feeling somewhat shell-shocked. The lives of the characters performing these famous roles provoke speculation; ‘Hal’ reveals she is to be released soon, and the whole cast have worked to create back stories. The prisoners’ own production is deliberately lo-fi – their props have to be improvised and costumes are minimal, adding to a sense of raw immediacy. What shines through is the strength of Shakespeare’s story, magnified by these imagined lives and made all the more powerful for it.

Until 29 November 2014


Photo by Helen Maybanks

Written 15 October 2014 for The London Magazine

“Women Beware Women” at the National Theatre

Harriet Walter is a woman to be scared of, at least, she is in the National Theatre’s current production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. She plays Livia, gifted and cursed with a demonic persuasive power. Through deceit she organises an incestuous affair between her brother and her niece and engineers the rape of a newly married neighbour. Yet she does it all with a great deal of charm. She’ll manage to persuade you that she isn’t all that bad.

Her victims are Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) and Isabella (Vanessa Kirby). They transform from young, innocent women in love into killers bent on revenge. It’s a delicious change, and one the actresses clearly relish. Taking their lead from Walter, they adopt a cool, clever and cynical approach to marriage while passion boils inside them as they plot murder. As their metamorphosis occurs, Livia falls in love herself – she decides to take Bianca’s husband as a toy boy. Unfortunately for her, the transformation allows emotions to begin clouding her judgement.

And what of the men? They should have plenty of reason to beware these women, but their own arrogance and hypocrisy make them oblivious as to how they are manipulated. Richard Lintern is suitably villainous as the Duke who abducts Bianca, and Raymond Courtauld genuinely creepy as the uncle who loves Isabella. If Samuel Barnett seems slightly miscast as the man who manages to get Bianca to elope, he makes a good show of playing the doting husband and gets his fair share of laughs.

Focusing on the melodrama as a strategy for getting humour out of a revenge tragedy might seem like a risk. Making characters less rounded than they are written only works if you have a strong cast. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott is working with fine actors and the payoff is a great deal of fun. Elliott has great skill as a storyteller and can cut through complicated plots to provide refreshing clarity. She is also visionary when it comes to staging and here the production takes off.

Designer Lez Brotherston’s set is magnificent. A decadent mixture of art deco glamour and baroque drama, it manages to reflect the grand and intimate, rich and poor, while evoking the games and perils of seduction. And it works in more than one way. Making the most of the Olivier’s revolving stage, the final scene of murderous mayhem is perfectly choreographed and truly thrilling.

Until July 4 2010


Photo by Simon Annand

Written 29 April 2010 for The London Magazine