The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 26.459 Friday, 9 October 2015
Date: Friday, October 9, 2015
Subject: SBReview_20: Antony Sher’s Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries
Sher, Antony. Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries. London: Nick Hern Books, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-18484-2461-6 189 pages. £16.99
Reviewed by Kirk McElhearn
“Falstaff has never been a part I’ve remotely thought of as being mine,” says Sher on the first page of this new book explaining how he became Sir John. Nevertheless, he took on the role, to great acclaim, and wrote a book about the experience.
He blames it all on Ian McKellan. Gregory Doran, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Sher’s partner, had been trying to cast Falstaff for some time, considering actors such as Patrick Stewart, Jim Broadbent, and Brian Cox. When Doran asked McKellen, the latter replied, “But why are you looking for Falstaff when you are living with him?”
After much thought and discussion, Sher finally acquiesced, and this book relates the process of his becoming Falstaff. Sher performed the role in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 at the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon, then in London. He is currently preparing to play the role again in London, in December 2015 and January 2016.
Sher’s book is a diary, illustrated with a handful of his own sketches and paintings, in which he recounts the day-to-day process of becoming Falstaff. From the earliest casting choices through opening night, Sher gives a taste of what it’s like to be an actor in such a demanding role, and how he built up the part. The process was long and complex, even though Sher would have liked some more rehearsal time. He explains how he begins by learning lines, how the play is created in rehearsal, and how different actors use different techniques during the rehearsal process. For example, one actor tries different approaches each time they work on a scene; another always has his script in hand.
Part of the process includes field trips – such as to the site of the battle of Shrewsbury – or visiting scholars, such as historian Ian Mortimer, who talks about the live of King Henry, or Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, who examines the plays in the context of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
Sher says, in early January, “I’m still planning to play Falstaff as an alcoholic: I mean, explicitly. To do this, he not only researches alcoholism by reading books but also meets with a recovering alcoholic who explains what it’s like to need a drink first thing in the morning. As a result of this, Sher makes sure his hands tremble in the first moments he’s seen on stage as Prince Hal helps him take his first drink.
In between the first suggestion that he play Falstaff in February, 2013, and the play’s performances in the spring of the following year, Sher performed other plays, shot some scenes for The Hobbit in New Zealand (which were deleted from the final cut), and started thinking about playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, later that year, and King Lear, which he is to perform at the RSC in early 2016.
The title of the book - The Year of the Fat Knight - highlights one of the more difficult aspects of the role. Falstaff is fat, florid, a bon vivant, prone to gluttony and bombast. A man of Sher’s physique needed some help to be able to exhibit these characteristics; help that came in the form of a “fat suit.”
We take it for granted when we suspend disbelief for a couple of hours, we assume that the actor we see on the stage is the character, and often forget, in most cases, how much they need to alter their bodies. Sher goes into great detail about this transformation, not only with the suit, but also the wig and beard that he needed to make his face look fatter. It’s not easy performing with a fat suit, because of its weight, the difficulties one has in answering the calls of nature, and the amount of sweat generated.
Sher’s book is interesting to the theater buff, but also to actors. He openly discusses his worries as he goes through the rehearsal process, thinking that only three months isn’t enough for the two plays. In late January, he wrote:
“I could do an impression of him - his voice, his character - but it was like an outline, a cartoon. I have to find the real man. It’s vital -otherwise the part can just consist of bluster.”
I saw Henry IV Part 1 twice, and Part 2 three times. The first performance I attended of Part 1 on April 8, during the previews, was outstanding, and I was interested to read Sher’s comments on that specific evening in the book. He says:
“This evening’s audience - for Part I - was probably the best we’ve had: packed to the rafters and wild with enthusiasm. On occasions like this, I always say that the show flew, I flew - but tonight it was almost true. At one point I felt so exhilarated that I had a sort of out-of-body experience: it was as though I lifted out of myself, and saw the enormous theatre, filled with this joyful crowd, and there in the middle of it - there I was playing Falstaff. Now that wasn’t written into my destiny. And all the more fucking marvelous for it!”
Opening night, April 16, came, and Sher, like much of the cast, was stricken with a “terrible coughing illness which swept through the building.” Standing around Shakespeare’s grave in Trinity Church, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, the cast prepared to launch the play with the tension that is common on such evenings. It’s a tough day; the cast performs both of the plays to the press, and the anxiety one must have on such a day is doubled. Sher says, of Part 1, “after the interval, I start to get that press-performance feeling: just getting through it, no sense of enjoyment or inspiration.” And for Part 2, in the evening, the theater isn’t even full. “Then finally it’s over.”
But Sher isn’t cynical for long. The context begins to take hold. A few days later, on April 23, Shakespeare’s 400th birthday, after a performance of Part 1, he writes: “How wonderful to be here, in this town, on this particular night. I have just played one of Drama’s classic roles in a production which Greg directed, in the theatre that he runs, and then we joined all those people to pay homage to the playwright who made it all possible, the local boy made good. It’s one of those moments when I realise I’ve been sleeping through my job, and then suddenly wake up, and see it for what it truly is, and it’s completely bloody amazing.”
He concludes the book, saying “I have Falstaff inside me now - I can say it confidently at last - and that great, greedy, glorious bastard leaves no room for anything else at all.”