As you will by now have gathered Shakespeare is big in my life. And, because I live only an hour’s drive away from Stratford, the same is true of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I saw them on stage for the first time in 1962 and have been a constant visitor ever since. I have dozens of memorable productions stowed away in my memory and not a few of them have features performances by Antony Sher.
Now, I know that Sher is something of a marmite actor: you love him, or you hate him. I have one friend who refuses to see any further performances of Richard III because she wants nothing to diminish her memory of his 1984 interpretation. I have other friends who pointedly avoid anything he’s in. Personally, I am a fan.
I first saw Sher in 1982 playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear. This was not long after I had started out on what was to prove to be a nineteen year marathon during which I studied for three successive degrees at the same time as holding down a full-time job. Going to the theatre was about the only other activity I found time for and over that period of nearly two decades Tony Sher was one of a small number of actors who never failed to stimulate me and send me out of the theatre with new ideas careering round my brain. I didn’t always agree with his interpretations (the least said about his Malvolio the better) but he was never there just to make up the numbers. It was fitting, then, if completely unexpected, to turn up for my third and final graduation ceremony and find that he was the Honorary Graduand. He gave a speech that day which managed to turn what had been threatening to be a very embarrassing morning, centred round a hard-nosed plea for money from the university’s Chancellor, into what it should have been, a celebration of the achievements of the young people who had worked so hard and long for their degrees. I wrote to him afterwards to thank him and received a very generous response. As I say, I am a fan.
I am always glad then to see another in his series of diary accounts chronicling his journey towards the creation of a new part. There have now been three of these: The Year of the King, Wozza Shakespeare, and most recently, Year of the Fat Knight. The first was concerned with Richard III, the second, written jointly with his partner, Greg Doran, focused on a production of Titus Andronicus staged in post Apartheid South Africa, and the third about the current production of the Henry IVs.
I love the Henry IVs. They are up there amongst my favourite plays, especially Part II, which I think has a melancholy all of its own. And, I have seen some cracking productions over the years. So I was delighted when they were announced for the 2014 season with Sher cast as the reprobate, Falstaff. I didn’t share the doubts about his ability to play the role that he seems to have had and in fact, the early sections of this journal centre around the question of whether or not he is going to agree to take the part on. Some of the most interesting discussion focuses on why many of our greatest character actors have refused to agree to play Falstaff. Both Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen had turned it down before it was offered to Sher and neither Olivier nor Gielgud ever played the part. As Sher says Gielgud would have been the Don Quixote of Falstaffs and like him I’d have paid blood to see [Scofield] do it.
Once committed to the role Sher sets about discovering the Falstaff he can play and we go on the journey with him as he mines the text for indications of what it is that makes the fat knight recognisable to us as a real human being. This is a painstaking process and for someone like me, who is of an age with the actor, one I can empathise with, especially when he talks about the growing difficulty of learning lines. I didn’t think that there was as much analysis of the part and of the plays as there had been in the earlier books and felt this as a loss, but there is still much discussion of the rehearsal process and given that he was talking about people I have become familiar with over the past couple of seasons and spaces that I know very well, the book was nevertheless a very enjoyable read.
The added bonus where this journal is concerned is that it is now possible to go back and watch the plays again in the light of the journey Sher has laid before us. Recordings are available and although they will never quite catch the magic of the live performance it’s a darn sight better than not being able to see it at all. If you are a lover of Shakespeare or simply a lover of the theatre in general then I recommend a weekend spent with this book and the DVDs of the two plays. You won’t regret the time spent.