Sunday, August 21, 2011
YEAR OF THE KING: AN ACTOR'S DIARY AND SKETCHBOOK by Antony Sher (1985) The Hogarth Press, 249 pages
My friend James suggested I read Sher's memoir about the year leading up to his performance in the titular role of RICHARD III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, because he insisted it "read like butter." Well, James was right about that.
Sher's prose is smooth and I quickly lost myself in his narrative that begins in the summer of 1983, the year after he played the Fool to Michael Gambon's Lear in Stratford during which he ruptured his Achilles tendon, "up the back of [his] leg like a venetian blind." That injury led to 6 months of recovery that included physiotherapy sessions at the Remedial Dance Clinic and the luxury of hours at his easel working on paintings and sketches that he just simply hadn't had time for until this forced rest. Indeed, one of the delights of Sher's book is the inclusion of many pen and ink renderings of his colleagues and his evolving vision for his Richard-the-humpback. There is an ease of line in these sketches and a passion for each subject.
YEAR OF THE KING is an unabashedly honest behind-the-scenes look at how one actor builds a character from the inside out. At one point as he is struggling to find Richard's voice, Sher notes, "it does help me to think of Richard's verbal style throughout as that of a tabloid journalist, that brand of salivating prurience." Of course, Sher is not alone on this journey. He's accompanied by his director, a physiotherapist, a voice coach, a dresser, the costume department, his partner Jim, his fellow actors, all of whom believe they will help him build a unique version of "the shit" that will rival Olivier's watermark performance.
One of my favourite moments occurs when Sher goes to Chris Tucker's home to have a cast made of his back in order that Tucker be able to design a custom-made, lifelike hump. Tucker's masterpiece was John Hurt's head for THE ELEPHANT MAN, which he has displayed "on a little plinth in gruesome three-dimensional technicolour...The bony bits are hard, the pendulous sponges of skin soft and clammy." Next to it stands Gregory Peck's head from BOYS FROM BRAZIL, "with dog bites in the neck" that "looked much better when it was bleeding, of course." Of course.
You will feel Sher's nerves alongside him and feel compelled to applaud with the rest of the audience in Stratford as they regularly call the players back, standing and cheering "for a third time." He's a little star-struck himself when celebrities start flying in to see the show: "Michael Caine, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peter Brook, Donald Sutherland, Charlton Heston...Charlton Heston? I was making plasticine models of him when he was in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and I was in nappies."
YEAR OF THE KING: AN ACTOR'S DIARY AND SKETCHBOOK is written with such intimacy that you will feel as if you know Sher, almost as well as he has come to know his Richard III.