In his new book Year Of The Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries, acclaimed actor Sir Antony Sher recounts his experience of researching, rehearsing and performing one of Shakespeare’s best-known and most popular characters in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of Henry IV Parts I & II.
Offering a fascinating insight into an actor’s process from script to stage, the diary-format tome delves into the experiences of the theatrical knight as he inhabits another of Shakespeare’s great roles.
Among the treats held within the book’s illuminating pages, are Sher’s thoughts…
…on learning lines
In recent years, I’ve started doing something which I’d have disapproved of before: learning all the lines beforerehearsals begin. It’s the only way now. How, as a younger actor – as one of the Dirty Duckers in Stratford in 1982, partying all night, rehearsing all day, performing in the evening – how I found time to learn lines as well, I’ve absolutely no idea. When you’re young it seems so straightforward: you learn the lines and that’s that. But when you’re older, you’re aware of a series of tests and obstacles ahead, each of which will put pressure on you, and the lines will often be the first casualty.
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. Falstaff ’s dialogue is immediately delicious: you’re munching on a very rich pudding indeed, savoury rather than sweet, probably not good for your health, but irresistible.
…on the first day of rehearsals
The memories [of previous shows] – all good, as it happens – provide no protection against the first-day-at-school nerviness that accompanies me into the rehearsal room. It’s ridiculous. I’ve been an actor for over 40 years, yet I’m as anxious today as I was when I started out.
…on making Shakespeare clear
We start reading Part I. We go round the circle, each reading whichever part is next, as long as it’s not our own – the rule is you can’t read your own part – and then ‘translating’ the speeches into everyday English. Most Shakespeare productions don’t go through the process we’re doing at the moment, and the actors can end up speaking the text with lots of flair but little meaning. Greg [Doran]’s shows are praised for their clarity. Here’s why.
…on actors’ nerves
It’s here. An unmistakable new feeling in my body – in my belly mostly – connected to the new month, and the fact that over the next four weeks we’ll be doing run-throughs, dress rehearsals and previews of the plays. The feeling is a curious mixture of excitement and dread. I think sportsmen and athletes must know it. Certainly any actor who’s played any of Shakespeare’s great roles will be familiar with it, while people who call us luvvies won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I would luvto make one of those people learn a part like Falstaff, and I would luvto stand next to them in the wings before their first entrance – and I would luvto clear up whatever mess they leave on the floor behind them.
…on great Shakespearean roles
Why is Falstaff not considered one of the roles which the classical actor measures himself against? Shakespeare has mapped out the career of the (male) classical actor very sumptuously: in his youth, he can play Romeo, Hamlet, Richard II, Hal/HenryV; a few years later there’s Macbeth, Richard III, Coriolanus, Iago, Benedick, Petruchio, Leontes, Timon; and in his mature age, Lear, Prospero, Titus, Shylock, Antony, Othello. Falstaff isn’t automatically on the list. Why not?
Year Of The Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries by Antony Sher is out now, published by Nick Hern Books in hardback with colour illustrations. Get your copy for just £11.89 (30% off the rrp of £16.99) – using voucher code FALSTAFFOLT at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/falstaff
Henry IV Parts I & II returns to the Barbican in December.