Get a life, Harriet

The media love to put Harriet Walter into a box marked melancholy. OK, she's a workaholic and loves nothing more than to take on serious roles, but in reality she's anything but po-faced, as David Benedict discovers

Harriet Walter hit the headlines when she hit the sheets playing Charity, the adulterous wife, in The Men's Room on TV (there's nothing like nookie to boost ratings) but the nudity and notoriety overshadowed her powerful performance. And indeed, although television viewers were probably more accustomed to seeing her play Harriet Vane to Edward Petherbridge's Lord Peter Wimsey, on stage her reputation has been one for tackling serious parts. She has laid claim to a succession of Chekhov roles, had an early career high as Ophelia to Jonathan Price's acclaimed Hamlet and was last on stage as the less-than-laugh-a-minute Hedda Gabler.

But if you meet her, what you don't get is po-faced sobriety, even if her high spirits can't always spill out on to the stage. "You can have a good time with Masha in Three Sisters and we used to get a few laughs out of Nina in The Seagull but I cannot drag a laugh out of Anna Petrovna," at which point she dissolves into giggles.

Throughout our conversation, the cool landscape of her long pale face keeps shifting as different emotions pass across it. Small wonder that she has done such startling work on TV. Walter's break came as Cathy in Richard Eyre's TV film of Ian McEwan's The Imitation Game (with Bill Paterson). Eyre built much of the film on expressive reaction shots of this intelligent, innocent, well-bred young woman. It was a remarkably brave, moving performance, yet it didn't catapult her to big-screen success. Luckily for theatregoers, who are just about to enjoy the next instalment of her glittering stage career, as she and Paterson are reunited playing Chekhov at London's Almeida Theatre.

This time it's the early, rarely performed Ivanov, in which she plays Anna Petrovna, wife to Ralph Fiennes's Ivanov. Her character is pivotal but absent for much of the play. "It's frustrating already," she muses. "You have to build up in the wings for an hour, then get on their side very quickly and then disappear. If you keep going all evening you don't have time to question what you're doing. It's always harder to do these parts than those that go on all the time. Well, not harder... but if you've got a very large self-critical worm in your brain like I have, then you've got hours to either rue what you've just done or to plan something which then doesn't come off at all like you've planned it."

She's full of praise for David Hare's new translation. "I'm always nervous talking before a show has opened because everyone will say she was completely wrong, but I've seen the play a couple of times and never before felt so compassionate about Ivanov." She believes Hare and director Jonathan Kent have faced the pitfalls in this youthful piece and made it more accessible. "He's a man who's so unhappy - he says far worse things to himself than anyone could say to him. The audience cannot despise him more than he does himself. Everybody who tries to criticise him is punching thin air because, after a stream of abuse, he says: `Yes, you're probably right'. What's interesting is that he has the intelligence and self-awareness of a Hamlet but, within the play, repudiates the whole notion of Hamlet being romantic. There's nothing romantic or wonderful about someone who is so melancholy. It's almost a clinical portrait of a manic depressive so you get beyond blaming him and can't help but feel sorry for him. We all know you can't help it if you fall out of love."

This tragic element appeals to her but so does the vigour and youth of the writing. "It has all this anger in it and all this uncompromising head-on view of things. There isn't that web, that intricate veil that covers The Cherry Orchard or the others that are maybe more seamless, but I love that this has such highs and lows."

It's impossible to imagine your typical GP knocking out a steam of dramatic classics between house calls, but Walter sees the doctor in Chekhov coming through in the writing. "He's done such a good portrait of a man who was 10 years older than he was when he wrote it. To have that level of understanding might be the doctor in him. He made great clinical studies of people and was a great watcher of what was going on but I still find it extraordinarily understanding of a position which couldn't yet have been his. Although of course I was frightfully melancholic at 19."

Reading some of the less enlightened interviews in the cuttings file, you might imagine that she still is. "A single, 40-something workaholic," they tut, knowingly, unable to gossip about failed marriages or a torrid home life. "My private life is perfectly nice, thank you, but it's not that fascinating. I've always maintained you'd learn more about me if you talked about my work because that's where my heart beats." I remind her of a Daily Mail feature that sank to the level of asking her the contents of her handbag. "I decided the best thing to do was to make things up," she laughs. "I lied from beginning to end! There's a misconception that work is sad, narrow and boring. If you're involved in the theatre it embraces all sorts of huge things. That's very hard to communicate. I completely shrivel up and then I sound boring and pious."

All of which makes her a self-confessed workaholic? "I suppose I am, yes. Tedious, isn't it? Get a life, Harriet." Joking aside, she's expansive and bracingly intelligent about her work. There's a natural reticence about her - her graceful, slender hands are as self-protective as they are descriptive - but she understands her talent. She's not arrogant - she knows there's a huge amount of luck involved - but she's refreshingly free of bogus "who, me?" affectations. She turned down Hedda a couple of times because she wasn't convinced by the directors involved. When she finally agreed to play her, it was for Lindy Davies for whom she was a luminous Anna in the mesmerising production of Pinter's Old Times, a role she took on with only 10 days' rehearsals.

"I was very sceptical but there was something about what Lindy said in the interview. `We've all seen good acting. We're all expert at pretending. I'm interested in something else happening,' and I thought, that's it. I'll try that. If you've been at it quite a while, you can pull a few tricks out of the bag; you can impress people."

Davies, a former actress who suddenly succumbed to stage fright, has developed a method of working that recognises the process of acting. "Far too many people think we just get up there and do it because we're `instinctive creatures'," says Walter. "So many people in professional positions don't recognise that there is a process you can lock on to. There are directors who compensate for the lack of that by having brilliant taste or very good judgement and all sorts of other things which make you want to work with them, but..."

Walter, of course, is far too shrewd to name names but on wider issues she has always been vocal. Something she learnt when working with political companies of the calibre of 7:84 and Joint Stock at the beginning of her career. Much of that work harnessed not only her intelligence but also her comic skills. She brought the house down at the recent splashy Royal Court fundraising bash, reprising her beautifully timed Biddy from Three Birds Alighting On A Field which would have come as no surprise to anyone who saw her formidably funny Lady Croom in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, a role she was terrified by. "I just read it and thought: Maggie Smith, Maggie Smith, Maggie Smith. She should be doing this." In 1980 she was in Joint Stock's revival of Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine, a deeply touching comedy of sexual politics that she remembers as a tremendously witty play. "I love wit. It's such a weapon, it's such a conspiratorial instrument... when you can get the audience and then you think, `Ah, you've got it, great, we're together'." The words ring with passion. Her eyes are wide with relish. "I love it"

`Ivanov' is at the Almeida Theatre to 5 April (0171-359 4404)

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game