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Actor Theatre Book

Antony Sher , Nick Hern Books , July-22-15
Actor Theatre Book by Antony Sher Antony Sher’s Richard III has become a part of theatre’s history. The multi-talented fireball that is Antony Sher made it into a memorable journal-book “the Year of the King”. The cover for this successor comes adorned with press praise for his RSC Falstaff, the Fat Knight of the title: “Tremendous” from Times, “magnificent, magnetic” from Guardian.

The journal, intermittent from 11th February 2013 to 23rd April 2014, is low on ego, high in detail of description, and a potent reminder of the colossal effort that the making of a piece of theatre entails. It also comes with forty-two of Sher’s own drawings. The eight in full-page colour include pictures of Laughton, Brando, Streep, and Freud, as well as the author with Greg Doran against a Turneresque sea and sky.

The drawings, Sher reveals early on, date back to 1996 when art therapy was part of the regime at a clinic for cocaine dependency. It is the reverse, he says, of psychotherapy, giving the image primacy over the word as the route to self-expression. As for Sir John, his is the Shakespearean role that is a paradox, a star role that many a star avoids. Sher cites Oliver’s waspish comment on his reasoning for not taking on Falstaff. His own first reaction is severe. “Me as Falstaff? Short. Jewish, gay, South African me as Shakespeare’s gigantically big, rudely hetero, quintessentially English, Fat Knight? It made no sense.”

He is of course nudged into acceptance. Sher’s Richard III had big muscular arms and twisted knees. Tamberlaine went from athleticism in youth to obesity in older age. “You’re a shape-shifter” says Doran in the course of an Almeida lunch. In the Hobbit film studio in New Zealand he continues to talk it over with Gandalf. Sir Ian recalls his inspired tutoring at Cambridge in Shakespearean language and acting from John Barton.

At this time, mid-2013, Sher is engaged with “Hysteria” and the journal addresses the conundrum of playing the mature Freud in Terry Johnson’s scenes of high-speed farce. By September 10th the job of Falstaff has begun in earnest. “To an actor, dialogue is like food. You hold it in your mouth, you taste it. If it’s good dialogue the taste will be distinctive. If it’s Shakespeare dialogue, the taste will be Michelin-starred.”

He has already read and researched much. Falstaff is regular with his drink and Sher reads Olivia Laing’s study of alcohol and art “the Trip to Echo Spring.” He jots down notes from Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human.” Falstaff is “one of the lords of language…the monarch of language”…his is “the festival of language.” Simon Callow views him as a “mighty pagan creature” and “ a great escapologist…the world always seems a larger place when Falstaff speaks.” Doran recommends Tynan on Sir Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff in 1945. Sher reads of Richardson’s last scene and muses “it may be worth stealing.”

The serious making of theatre begins on a chilly 30th December, the rehearsal space in Clapham High Street a shock after the annual winter stay in South Africa. 8th January is the first fitting of the fat suit. “With big sagging moobs, and an even bigger belly (both of these sections weighted) the overall impression is that it’s feasible…I ask for a larger butt.” He makes comparison with photographs of Robert Stephens in the role.

His detail of enquiry looks into the drink that has fattened Sir John. After consulting different authorities he decides that sack is most likely a dry white wine sweetened with sugar. An archery teacher comes in to talk about longbows. On a field trip to the Museum of London the company is allowed to touch and feel a range of Elizabethan-era clothes and artefacts. The selection extends to a tiny, delicately carved implement for the removal of ear-wax.

Week eleven and Sher and Doran are in the theatre’s Upper Circle. They look down on “the set going up…an army of stage crew with hard hats and radio controls.” The preview audience against all expectation is disarmingly unresponsive. The actor relaxes at this taut time with Peter Brook’s book “the Quality of Mercy.” And of course it all comes right. The entry for 8th April is rapturous. The audience is “packed to the rafters and wild with enthusiasm.” He is so exhilarated he has a kind a out-of-body experience “and all the more f***ing marvellous for it.”

“The Year of the Fat Knight” is a warm, generous, incisive read. It is also a part-record of a year in the life. Sher sees Henry Goodman in “Arturo Ui” and remembers Leonard Rossiter. He observes the lightness of Peter Jackson directing Ian McKellen for the fifth time. In New York a speech by Greg Doran is reminder that Julius Nyerere was the translator of “Julius Caesar” into Swahili. A Collected Shakespeare circulated in Robben Island disguised as a Hindu prayer book. Nelson Mandela’s favourite speech was Caesar’s “Cowards die many times before their death/ The valiant never taste of death more than once.” That kind of breadth of detail gives to “Year of the Fat Knight”, like the figure of Sir John himself, a dimension of weight and gravity.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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