The Measure for Measure and Taming of the Shrew actor talks to Viv Graver about her journey to performing Shakespeare.

Early influences

Amanda was born in Australia and grew up in Papua New Guinea, coming to Great Britain when she was ten. She says it was her mother who put her on the path to acting by reading Shakespeare excerpts to her in the evening, including the juicy bits! Amanda was also fortunate to be taken by school to the RSC where she saw Ian McKellen as Romeo and Patrick Stewart as Oberon.

Although her parents had expected her to go on to sixth form and university, she fasttracked instead to drama. Amanda decided at sixteen that she wanted a stage career and applied to Arts Ed. for training, the only drama college that took students of that age.

Declan Donnellan was a guest director at the college and cast her in his production of Pericles, but she caught chicken pox and was unable to perform. However, she was still asked to join his new company, taking the role of Desdemona in Othello at just nineteen. She also did Marina in Pericles with Cheek by Jowl. It was a fantastic time as she experienced a strong company spirit where they built their own sets and ironed their own costumes.

Titania in a black dress touches Bottom's donkey head.
Amanda Harris as Titania with Malcolm Storry's Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream (2005).
Photo by Stewart Hemley © RSC Browse and license our images

Starting with the RSC

Her relationship with the RSC goes back to the eighties when she first met Gregory Doran and she has been fortunate to play many of the big roles for women. In 1992 she was Katherine in Bill Alexander’s The Taming of the Shrew with Anton Lesser as Petruchio. Another role she loved was playing Titania with Joe Dixon as Oberon and Jonathan Slinger as Puck in Greg’s 2005 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 2004 she won the prestigious Laurence Olivier award for best supporting role as Emilia in Othello.

A change in direction

The acclaim that this brought caused her to reflect on why she was acting. She felt that acting should be more than entertainment and started to question the decision she had made as a sixteen year old. Acting can be a rarefied world. What of the world elsewhere? Amanda explored other options. She worked in London for various charities before taking up an academic career at the University of Alicante where she has lived and worked for the past five years, teaching Shakespeare in both Drama and English courses. This led her to explore in greater depth the justification for drama beyond mere entertainment.

A woman talks to a man, both dressed in elaborate Elizabethan dress.
Amanda as Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew (2019), with Katherine (Joseph Arkley).
Photo by Ikin Yum © RSC Browse and license our images

Returning to the stage

Amanda came back to the UK for the funeral of John Barton, the grandfather of practitioners at the RSC. On her return to Spain she realised: if I never act again, I will be unhappy.

So what was she to do? She sent an email to Greg offering to play anything, even a dog, if she could return to the stage. Forget the dog, he replied, come and play Aeneas in my production of Troilus and Cressida. And so she made a welcome return to the RSC stage in 2018.

This season she plays Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew, a return to the play for Amanda although Justin Audibert’s version is very much of the moment, regendering the text to reveal the total absurdity of inequality in society. There is much to be entertained by in this production but also plenty for the audience to think about in greater depth. In Greg’s Measure for Measure she plays the Provost in charge of the prison. She and Claire Price as Escalus both appear as characters of integrity within the murky world of the play.

Next steps

Amanda says that she has grown up with the RSC. She works very much in its spirit when teaching in Spain and will be on the road here with these productions from later this year. After that, she hopes to stick with Shakespeare, directing a version of As You Like It back in Spain.

Viv Graver

Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.

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