In the Year of the Fat Knight Sir Antony Sher documents his preparations for his performance of Falstaff in last year’s RSC Henry IV Parts I & 2. It’s a sequel of sorts to his 2004 The Year of the King, the journal of his rehearsal for Richard II in 1984. Of course, that makes it a very different kind of work, temporally speaking: looking back on events a year or two before publication, rather than twenty.
Perhaps this closeness to its subject feeds into my difficulty with the first chapter of this rather lovely account. The refrain of the opening pages – “I am a character actor – I go to the part. Can I go to this one?” – may grate as the diarist decides whether to take on the big role, measuring himself against those ‘great actors’ who have taken the part before him. But even as this deliberation proceeds, the events of Sher’s life in early 2013 are interesting enough to be getting on with, as his partner of twenty-five years, Greg Doran, has just taken up the ‘Big Job’ at the RSC. Through Sher’s older eyes we watch Doran settle into the dual task of running the RSC and preparing for to tackle the Henriad – and of course Doran has limited patience with Sher’s prevarication: a friendly “Piss or get off the pot”, gets us onto the meat of preparation and rehearsal which takes up the bulk of the book.
Sher’s style is easy and open – the prose equivalent of a stage whisper – and his concerns are both lofty and low: he makes a concerted case for Falstaff as one of the great older Shakespearean roles (alongside Lear and Prospero) but also details the two plays conjoined rehearsal periods, his methodical approach to the lines (at sixty-four he can no longer leave it until the rehearsal period itself) and worries about the weight of his Falstaff-shaped ‘fat suit’ on his back. Also we get that impressionistic déjà vu of reading about recent history – flooding after Hurricane St Jude in 2013, one of those news stories which, for those unaffected, has taken on the quality of dream. Entirely different is Sher’s account of the death of Nelson Mandela, a man who both Antony and Greg had met, Sher having been born in Cape Town. “We were both in tears. Greg said, ‘Thank you for letting me know that country and meet that man.'”
And indeed this moment will be a barometer for your enjoyment. If the thought of famous individuals meeting other famous people at press nights and parties and talking about Shakespearean histories turns you off, steer clear. The books first line is: “It’s all Ian McKellen’s fault.” But all this can be, and should be, pushed past, for the simple joy of Antony’s diary account of his relationship with Greg. He presents a truly fabulous power couple, not in the listicle sense of their fame or their roles, but in their worry and support of each other: Tony fussing over the different demands of playing Falstaff in Parts 1 and 2, and Greg calmly taking meetings with Erica Whyman on the Tube en route to rehearsal. Tony breaks the house rule (not speaking about work) to voice his fears about how rehearsals are going, and later regrets worrying him: “Look, I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
“No, you should,” Greg tells him, “You must always tell me how you’re feeling”.
If you aren’t already buying your copy online, you haven’t read enough fanfic. I can’t wait until Tumblr gets ahold of the moment when Tony tells Greg he’s decided to do the part. “Greg goes silent, then gives a little whoop of joy. ‘We are going to have such an adventure!’ Then he’s silent. Then says, ‘I’m crying … I’m in the middle of Tottenham Court Road and I’m crying.'” The online fan art will have to be of a high standard though. Anthony, an inveterate doodler, also shares drawings and paintings made during the course of preparation for Falstaff, showing off prodigious talent and a restless eye: beautiful portraits are committed to script pages and between rehearsal notes.
The Year of the Fat Knight – published by Nick Hern Books – is the Radio 4 Book of the Week, read by the author, starting on 4th May. I’ll be listening, imagining where Greg is and what he’s doing, smiling away as he listens. That’s my kind of power couple.
Next week David will be true-shipping Laura Wade and Samuel West.