Harriet Walter on Antony and Cleopatra: 'You have to play it fast or it falls apart'
In a new series to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, leading actors, directors, designers and others offer their own guides to his plays. Harriet Walter starts off with a tragedy that demands to be performed at speed
‘She’s mercurial’ … Harriet Walter as Cleopatra in 2006. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian
’m not sure I really wanted to play Cleopatra, at least at first. I thought of her as a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Mata Hari – the most beautiful woman in history, this sexy siren figure who could wrap the world’s most powerful men around her little finger. Everyone in the play falls in love with her. I didn’t think I could do that, to be honest.
When I started to get more interested, a few years before I played her at the RSC in 2006, I realised that she’s much more fascinating than that. She’s an extraordinarily intelligent, intense woman, a complex character who uses her sexuality as a political weapon. I decided I was going to play Cleopatra as someone with a brain. She’s kept Egypt, this tiny country, in a balance of power with the almighty Roman empire, and she’s done it through force of personality. In fact the play contains very few references to what she really looks like; it’s all about the effect she has on stage.