May 2015 - The Year of the Fat Knight

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Antony Sher's new book lifts the lid on the trials and joys of playing Falstaff...




Antony Sher's The Year of the Fat Knight is published on April 30th 2015 by Nick Hern Books in hardback, 224pp with colour/B&W illustrations



You can see for yourselves the magnificent performances of Sir Antony Sher and the entire cast in this superb DVD version, which features the two performances that were broadcast live to cinemas around the world during the summer months of last year. 



Antony Sher on... the year of the Fat Knight...

Last month saw the publication of Antony Sher's memoir on his award-winning performance as Sir John Falstaff in Gregory Doran's RSC production of Henry IV Parts I and II with Jasper Britton as Henry and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal. The production was staged in Stratford Upon Avon, Newcastle, Norwich and the Barbican and goes on tour around the world in the near future. With the production garnering four-star reviews everywhere it went, this is a brilliant time for Sir Antony to share his experiences of getting into the part it now seems may have been made for him. In this feature, BOOKS MONTHLY looks at Sir Antony's new book, YEAR OF THE FAT KNIGHT, and then takes the opportunity of looking at Allison and Busby's classic reprint of ROBERT NYE's mammoth novel FALSTAFF, alongside one of Nye's other Shakespearean novels, THE LATE MR SHAKESPEARE. Jerry Dowlen's column this month looks at the TV adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury's THE HISTORY MAN which brought Antony Sher to the immediate attention of millions of viewers.



Antony Sher: Year of the Fat Knight


Published by Nick Hern Books, hardback, 30th April 2015


Thirty years ago a promising young actor published his account of preparing for and playing the role of Richard III. Antony Sher's Year of the King has since become a classic of theatre literature. In 2014 Sher, now in his sixties, was cast as Falstaff in Gregory Doran's RSC production of the two parts of Henry IV. Both the production and Sher's Falstaff were acclaimed by critics and audiences - with Sher winning the Critics' Circle Award for Best Shakespearean Performance - and the shows transferred from Stratford to London.

Year of the Fat Knight is Antony Sher's account -splendidly supplemented by his own paintings and sketches - of researching, rehearsing and performing one of Shakespeare's best-known and most popular characters. He tells us how he had doubts about playing the part at all, how he sought to reconcile Falstaff's obesity, drunkenness, cowardice and charm, how he wrestled with the fat suit needed to bulk him up, and how he explored the complexities and contradictions of this comic yet often dangerous personality. On the way, Sher paints a uniquely close-up portrait of the RSC at work.

Year of the Fat Knight is a terrific read, rich in humour and with a built-in tension as opening night draws relentlessly nearer. It also stands as a celebration of the craft of character acting. All in all, it is destined to rank with Year of the King as one of the most enduring accounts of the creation of a giant Shakespearean role.


When you see a blockbuster movie, like, for example, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and the film comes to an end, and there are around seven or eight minutes of names scrolling up the screen, you know that several hundreds of people have assisted the director, Peter Jackson, in filming take after take after take until he's satisfied, and the digital data can be edited and transformed into something watchable. One performance, honed to perfection for all time. When you go to the theatre, for example, to see a Shakespeare play, you realise something entirely different. You realise that a relatively small company has put this production together, and in the case of plays like Henry IV Parts I and 2, you're seeing something the cast has already performed several times, and will perform again several times, probably for several weeks, even months, and the director has only the smallest chance of getting it right night by night and on matinée performances.


I genuinely love my Shakespeare. I've never acted in a Shakespeare play, though I have played the violin on stage in a school production of Twelfth Night, way back in 1961. I remember being terrified that an audience of a couple of hundred people were going to see me every night for a week, exposed on stage. It went off very well, the director, our English teacher, Charles Lepper, was delighted with our performance. We'd been rehearsing for about four weeks, I should think. That more or less sums up my one and only experience of being on the stage, of performing in anything.


We saw Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 in the live cinema broadcasts from the RSC in the summer months of last year, then in October, courtesy of our daughter Samantha, who played violin in the productions, we saw Part 1 live at the Theatre Royal in Norwich, which is near to where we live. It occurred to us then, and Samantha had already mentioned it, of course, that this was something the cast had to do again and again, over and over, night after night. She mentioned that things occasionally went wrong, but that the cast covered the wrong things up and generally got away with it. The productions were given four-star reviews from just about everyone that saw and wrote about them. And people raved about Antony Sher's Falstaff, something we were able to see for ourselves at the live cinema broadcasts and the Norwich tour. I have favourite actors: Shaun Evans, who plays Endeavour Morse, and Roger Allam, who plays Fred Thursday; Kevin Whatley, who plays Inspector Lewis, but who also starred in Auf Wiedersehen Pet, of course. Robert Mitchum is a favourite movie actor, along with Harrison Ford and William Shatner. You can tell from this list that I'm not a regular theatre-goer, but that that has increased tenfold since Samantha joined the RSC for five or six of their most recent productions. I wouldn't have included Antony Sher in my list of favourite actors until I saw the Henries. I knew of him, of course, but only really from The History Man, in which he appeared in the BBC TV production in 1981, and about which my contributor Jerry Dowlen writes so brilliantly in his column in this issue. I remember him dominating the series in the part of Howard Kirk, it was not a performance you would forget, and it etched the actor's name into my memory forever. But the character of Falstaff, which I knew from the Henries, from The Merry Wives of Windsor, and from William Walton's deeply moving music in Henry V, was, as far as I remembered, a fat knight, not a svelte, dapper, sharply-dressed man like Sher, like Howard Kirk? Surely Sir Antony Sher couldn't be playing Falstaff? It turns out that he could, and thank goodness he did! The entire cast of Greg Doran's Henries productions were mesmerising. Some people stood out - Alex Hassell as Hal, Trevor White as Hotspur, Oliver Ford Davies, for example. But Sir Antony Sher was stellar. He was, quite rightly, the star of the show, and I know full well that his portrayal of Falstaff, the "fat knight" will be remembered for years and years as a five-star performance, a prize-winning performance, a legendary performance, despite all of his doubts and misgivings at having agreed to do a part that wasn't really one you would normally associate with an actor such as him.


Back to my opening remarks: a small company, relatively small, that is, put on a production that few people faulted, the vast majority of people loved, truly loved. If you're a part of that company, you know what lies ahead of you, the preliminary read-throughs, when you read the parts in your own voices, when you read everyone else's part save your own, etc., then the rehearsals, the fight coaching, the voice coaching, the costume and wig fittings, (and in the case of Falstaff, the fat suit fitting), the dress rehearsals, followed by the preview performances, the press nights, and finally the actual performances, where reputations are made or lost. Antony Sher shares everything with us in this book - it arrived Tuesday morning, I opened it and began reading, and by lunchtime I was half way through - I'd been shopping, I'd walked the dogs, but every other available moment was devoted to devouring this superb account of Sher's experience as Falstaff, from being told he should do it by Sir Ian McKellen, to the performances, to the triumphant first night and the four-star reviews.


It's a life that will be familiar to actors (and musicians, and stage hands, costumiers, admin. staff et al), but unfamiliar territory to us who only go and see the finished article, the performance, who marvel at how the actors memorise all those Shakespearean words and bring them to life... It's all in this marvellous book. How fortunate for us that Antony Sher keeps a diary. It's a privilege and an honour to read his diary, a privilege to share his fears, his nightmares, his doubts, because you already know that he has conquered all of these and given the performance of his life, of his career, over and over again, night after night. Sir Antony Sher was knighted in 2000 for his services to acting and writing. I knew about his earlier work, Year of the King, which refers to his Richard III. I had no idea he'd written other works of fiction and nonfiction, but I can see now, after reading his Falstaff Diaries that he has a beautiful way with words. It is small wonder to me that this book will be Radio 4's Book of the week, read by the author himself, week commencing May 4th. Where does he find the time?


I haven't even had time to mention that the book is handsomely illustrated by Sher himself, portraits of various famous Falstaffs (Ralph Richardson, Orson Welles etc.), portraits of his fellow actors in these productions of the Henries, self-portraits both candid and finished, of himself as Falstaff, all a result of the art therapy he took up to conquer his addiction. Then there is the small matter of Peter Jackson inviting him over to New Zealand to take part in the second Hobbit Movie, The Desolation of Smaug, in which he played a cameo role as Thrain, although the segment was eventually cut. This book is a tour de force of candid memories of being frightened of not getting the part right, not getting the voice right, not looking right, of playing the part wrongly. It is a shared, intimate experience of a fine actor who turns out to be a rather humble, genuine, and thoroughly nice man who's a workaholic, a perfectionist, and surely one of the finest Shakespearean actors alive today. I would not have missed sharing this experience for the world. This is a book that should, and hopefully will, win awards... It is totally enthralling from start to finish, an intimate self-portrait of an actor who has been at the top of his game for decades, and yet still worries about fulfilling the role, about the possibility of getting things wrong and subsequently disappointing the audience.


Antony Sher mentions briefly a feeling of anxiety when he realises that sooner or later they (the company) are going to have to give their performance up - to an audience, to someone other than themselves, because there is a period, when it all comes together (not necessarily during a dress rehearsal or a read through) but at some point, and they can finally call the production theirs (the company's). It's sometimes something of a wrench to give the performance to someone else (the audiences). There are moments of elation, moments of dark despair, but through it all, Antony Sher praises, even raves about his fellow actors, in particular Alex and Jasper, members of the production team, e.g. the wig maker, the fat body maker, the composer, Paul Englishby (Luther), and the band. He is the consummate professional, and with Gregory Doran, the Director, and his partner, they make a formidable team. The rest is history. Look at the production photos on this page, and think about who you are seeing. I see Falstaff, a fat knight, a part,it seems, that was, after all, made for Sir Antony Sher.




Robert Nye: Falstaff


Published by Allison and Busby Classics, paperback, 30th July 2012


For as long as I talk they are commanded to set it down, every day, every word, without fear or favour or crossings out or any alteration. At the end of these one hundred days I shall have told the story of my life. Expansive, sprawling, unruly and oversized - like his stomach and everything about him - Falstaff’s memoirs take the unsuspecting reader into the world of a character so audacious that, apparently, even the Bard himself could not do him justice. Larger-than-life, irascible and still lecherous at the advanced age of eighty-one, Falstaff recounts his outrageously bawdy tales as an antidote to popular legend. Who killed Hotspur? What really went on at the Battle of Agincourt? And what was it that made the wives of Windsor so merry? The Middle Ages come alive as we romp through history with the most entertaining of guides, in another stunning novel from the author of The Late Mr Shakespeare.


Robert Nye's FALSTAFF shows the "fat knight" of Antony Sher's book in his entirety - this is a heady mix of John Cleland (with all the untrammeled intimacies of Fanny Hill), of Rabelais, of Chaucer, and of Henry Fielding - no holds barred, nothing barred at all, in fact. The word "ribald" might have been coined to describe this "story", because, after all, it is a work of fiction - though it would be nice if it were not. In other words, Nye's comprehensive dissection of Falstaff's life, works and world is so complete and rich in detail, it is difficult to believe that there never was a Sir John Falstaff, and in so doing, Nye celebrates the fact that Shakespeare created a character so round, so complete, so brilliant. This is a coming of age novel, a picaresque novel that lays bare the character of the fat knight to such an extent that we believe him to be real. Some of the passages in Nye's biography require a strong stomach, but each passage is brief an succinct, and it's nearly all joyous fare and a book to be treasured.



Robert Nye: The Late Mr Shakespeare


Published by Allison and Busby Classics, paperback, 30th July 2012


'By the time I have finished I think you will have to admit it. There is no man or woman alive in the world who knows more than old Pickleherring about the late Mr Shakespeare.' From a dingy attic above a brothel in Restoration London, aged actor Pickleherring tells all that's fit to know, and much that's not, about the life of the Bard. A child actor in Shakespeare's troupe, Pickleherring has heard every salacious story about the playwright's life, and is generous-spirited enough to repeat them all. Was Shakespeare ever 'in love'? Did he write his own plays? Might he have had royal blood? Upon whom did he base the character of Falstaff? What were his last words? And who was the Dark Lady of the sonnets? Pickleherring has the answers to every question ever asked about his mentor. Audacious, bawdy and jaw-droppingly ingenious, The Late Mr Shakespeare deserves a place on the same shelf as Shakespeare's plays.


THE LATE MR SHAKESPEARE is an altogether more dry, more louche affair than FALSTAFF - Pickleherring, although created long afterwards, is reminiscent of a Dickensian character, rather than a Shakespearean one. Nye's Shakespeare is the Shakespeare of Shakespeare in Love with far more detail, of course, because you can provide much more detail in a book than you can in a film. Nye asks some searching questions about Will Shakespeare's origins, his talent, his characters, but on the whole this is simply an enjoyable romp through Elizabethan London, and doesn't tell us much that we don't already know about the Bard. No shocks here, just a superb retelling of the playwright's life and loves.



Paul Norman

Editor, publisher and author...

The small print: Books Monthly, now in its eighteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by me, Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from it, it's free. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.


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