Lear Learning

Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries
Antony Sher, Nick Hern Books, 2018

The first time I saw Antony Sher perform, I fell asleep. I was on a school trip to see him play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Noël Coward. We were studying the play for our English A-level, and one particularly energetic school teacher came up with the brilliant idea for our class to fly over to London (from Northern Ireland), and not only see this performance, but also visit the Globe, go shopping, grab a quick dinner, and make it back home by bedtime. This required getting up before 3am to catch the earliest flight over. We didn’t have time to be tired as we crossed what seemed like vast distances by foot, constantly checking behind us for the muggers our parents had told us to expect in the big city. So when we sat down in those comfortable chairs, and the lights went down (and surely the actors couldn’t see our faces), almost every single one of us fell asleep. This 20-minute nap revived me, however, and after the interval I sat down to a truly remarkable performance which has always made me regret sleeping through the first.

Reading Sher’s own description of playing the role in his recently published Year of the Mad King (2018), in an entry dated almost exactly a month before my trip to London, offers a reflection of the powers of Sher’s own art as a diarist and actor. He explains the usefulness of Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends (1988): ‘This has never happened to me before – a playwright guiding me through a character not just through the play, but a completely separate piece of writing: his autobiography.’

Reading Sher’s diaries, Year of the King (1985), Year of the Fat Knight (2015) and now Year of the Mad King (which document his playing of major Shakespearean roles: Richard III, Falstaff, and King Lear respectively) is just as powerful a guide to these characters. I saw Sher’s 2016 performance as Lear at the Barbican, and after reading these diaries I rewatched performance on DVD. It felt like a whole new performance, my interpretation altered by new understanding of Sher, and the character of Lear. The above quotation illuminates another intriguing aspect of these diaries: their place in a conversation between forms – the playscript, the diary, and even the novel. Sher himself sees the relationship as mutually generative, intrinsically interdependent; at the Oxford Literary Festival he told me: ‘The diary doesn’t exist without the script and the script doesn’t exist without the diary.’

At first glance, this seems a little ludicrous. The Tragedy of King Richard the third was printed in quarto form in 1597, The Historie of Henry the fourth in 1598, and the True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King LEAR and his three Daughters in 1608. Of course, the scripts exist without Sher’s diaries. But the comment points to something other than the material facts. Sher has been keeping diaries throughout his whole acting career, and most aren’t published. For him, perhaps, the script is only digestible with the help of this cathartic act of writing. Or maybe his writing (Sher has also published an autobiography and several novels and plays) as well as his cartoons and paintings which decorate the diaries, act as a creative outlet to balance the physicality of acting. Written art, painted art, acted art. The mind extends to the hand and then the tongue and then the whole body. ‘Lines’, for Sher, can be drawn lines on a canvas, scribbled lines on a page, or lines spoken or shouted on the stage. Some of the most remarkable examples of the cohesion between these artistic media are Sher’s portraits on script pages of his fellow actors. They become absorbed into, or formed out of, the playworld they’re reading and creating.

The phenomenon of the published diary, an ostensibly private form made public, designed to be seen and read, introduces another complex aspect into this conversation between forms. Year of the King’s subtitle, ‘An Actor’s Diary and Sketchbook’, implies that the book is much more candid than it really is. This is a polished, cleaned up, professional diary: a performance in and of itself. This is most keenly felt in Year of the King, written before Sher had come out as gay, and before the end of apartheid. Sher is guarded about his personal life and his romantic relationships, with a sense of guilt surrounding his South African nationality. The openness of Year of the Mad King forms a stark contrast to this, but it’s still a performance act, written as a publicised imitation of a secret diary.

This reveals itself even more tellingly in the organisation of text. In Sher’s diaries dated entries are grouped together into chapters, like a novel. The distinction between private and public roots itself in such formal choices. Year of the Fat Knight has five chapters, perhaps a conscious imitation of a five-act play, and each of the diaries contains an epilogue (although sadly not written in blank verse). The diaries themselves almost become scripts; seeing them as semi-theatrical sheds new light on Sher’s belief in the interdependence of these forms.

An emphasis on formal concerns, however, should not detract from the emphasis on the sheer physicality of acting in these diaries. As audience members, it is so easy to buy into the pretence of play world conventions as we sit in a theatre. The actors aren’t people like us: they’re characters from another world (or from 500 years ago). The stage isn’t covered in paper flowers: we’re in a forest. That’s not fake blood: Gloucester has really had his eyes gouged out. But Sher’s diaries repeatedly remind us of the humanity of acting, in a way that I’ve only experienced before on that trip to see Death of a Salesman. As I desperately tried to stay awake – pinching my arm, prising apart my eyelids with my fingers, wiggling my toes – it was the humanity of the actors that caused me real distress. What if they saw I was asleep? What if they thought I was bored? What if it put them off the performance? Only when my own physical need for sleep took over did I realise the physicality, the reality of the actors onstage. This wasn’t Willy Loman, but a man part of whose profession it is to keep me awake, to keep me entertained, and I was letting him down. I hope that none of the actors did see me asleep, but it was a real relief to enter the second half a little more refreshed, ready to enter the playworld.

In Year of the Mad King, the human man at the heart of that playworld is described in the most human of terms. His own physical ailments become a central part of the plot, and ‘Lear’s Ear’, the name Sher gives to his bouts of deafness, becomes almost a character in itself. The hearing issue, which almost leads to him dropping out of the production, turns out to be psychosomatic, a symptom of anxiety. This diagnosis itself represents a fascinating embodiment of the script, an exteriorising of the inner turbulence faced by any actor attempting to play Lear. There’s something of Lear in that too, an outward frailty affected by an inner instability. Sher himself wonders, ‘Does it mean that Lear isn’t the only mad one around here?’ Physical problems have emerged in his other roles – he nearly lost his voice playing Richard III, and developed a bad cough playing Falstaff – but here, the issues become more prominent, more menacing. Sher often reflects on the difficulty of ‘Lear learning’, his process of memorising lines; something rarely mentioned in the earlier diaries. His performance of King Lear becomes a portrait of old age which is in itself threatened by the physical ailments of an aging actor, no matter how energetic his onstage presence is.

But this presence is threatened not only by time’s effects on the human body, but also by the past encroaching upon the present. The actor must embody not only a character inscribed on the playscript, but also a character who has already been embodied by so many actors before them. Sher’s particular embodiment can only ever be a reiteration of words which have been figured again and again in the bodies of others. It’s not just the setting, the cuts to the script, the costumes, the intonation of speech which differs from performance to performance, but the bodies of the actors themselves. And it is this, the emblematic physicality of specific performances, which Sher seems to fear the most in Year of the King as he sets out to play his first major Shakespearean role:

Why bother playing the part? [Laurence] Olivier’s interpretation is definitive and so famous that all round the world people can get up and do impersonations of it. At parties in New York, in bars in Naples, on remote Australian farms and forgotten South Sea Islands, people get to their feet, hoist one shoulder up, shrivel an arm and limp across the room declaring, ‘Now is the winter’, or its relevant linguistic equivalent.

That hoisted shoulder, however, isn’t just the stereotypical image of Richard III; it’s the stereotypical image of Olivier himself. The actor is so often seen only through his presence onstage, rather than his life offstage. In one way, acting is the most public of professions; your profession is performance, it finds meaning in being looked at. But it is also mysterious; we know so little about the process from script to stage, about the logistics of the thing: details about life backstage, life in the RSC canteen, life as an ‘inmate’ on a ‘health farm’ to prepare for a role, a life which involves picking one of many RSC houses for your home at the start of the season, a life in which you’re meeting the Queen one day and a convicted murderer the next. But sometimes the very basic details in Sher’s diaries, about houses and dressing rooms, offer more than a salacious glimpse into the lives of the famous; they reveal psychological depths within truly overburdened spaces.

In Year of the Fat Knight, for instance, speaking of his new house, shared with his partner Greg Doran (Artistic Director of the RSC), Sher gleefully recounts:

The best thing is that the floor is going to be made of some of the teak and mahogany stage-boards retrieved from the old theatre.

I’m a great believer in ghosts in the walls, of all theatres, and in their stages especially. Just think of the actors who have bestrode this one. I’m going to have Laurence Olivier under my feet…!

Just a few wooden planks, perhaps, but also an extraordinary act of reappropriating or reviving theatrical history. These slabs of history are haunted, overdetermined, still stubbornly functional but with huge symbolic ramifications. The planks have been walked upon over and over again by acting troupes whose identities changed with every performance. They have been the floor of a ballroom, of a ship, of a forest, of a battlefield, and Sher feels the power of these imagined spaces reverberate through the physicality of the wood, which now becomes the floor of the Artistic Director’s house. And these sorts of spaces, which emanate theatrical power from the past, are found backstage too:

There’s a corridor on the ground floor of the backstage area, between the door to the stairs and the door to the stage, where a constant low noise is heard…It was like the sound of distant applause. It’s as if, when they were rebuilding the theatre, rearranging its spaces and its routes, a pocket of air got trapped here, and then when everything had settled down again, this most unexpected thing was released. Everyone talks about theatres having ghosts in the walls; they mean actors, but why not audiences too – the ghost of an audience? At the end of some show, some time in the RSC’s history, when the people had enjoyed themselves, and clapped loud and long… and it’s continued to echo in this one passageway.

Indeed, the audience play an unexpectedly important role in Sher’s diaries. They exist not merely as the homogenous spectre of public approval, the feared critics influencing rehearsal decisions. Their role is not defined by future reviews, not just to be anticipated: they exist in the present, often dictating the action onstage as much as Shakespeare himself is, and here they exist in the future, as applause resounding in the walls of the theatre, a ghostly, insubstantial, yet immediate reminder of success – or the lack thereof.

In Year of the Mad King, the participatory power of the audience reveals itself most potently in one particular scene from King Lear. Lear has been ungraciously kicked out of his daughter’s home into the midst of a storm. Angry, afraid, heartbroken, Lear tells his daughters:

I will have such revenges on you both,

That all the world shall–I will do such things,–

What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be

The terrors of the earth.

The line between tragic and comic is thin here. Lear is a man on the edge of a breakdown, a picture of terror and human frailty. But he’s also just a forgetful old man, struggling to string a sentence together, shouting empty threats at his daughters. Trying to portray a sense of the former pain, Sher is ‘shocked and thrown’ when these lines raise a laugh from the audience, but the playwright David Edgar later tells him: ‘No, no, it was perfect…We laughed, and then we caught ourselves, thinking, “That could be my dad.”’ The audience opens up a new level of interpretative power to the speech, a familial closeness to the King. But Sher himself confesses that it was precisely a familial closeness which helped him gain a grip on such an impossible role:

There’s a lot of Dad in my performance.

[…] Of course he’s Lear, or Lear is him. Whichever way round it works. And of course that’s why the part boils and fumes inside me, of course there’s all that tumult – it’s like a kind of possession, but no longer by some fictional character from drama, but by a spirit I know all too bloody well, inside bloody out.

I wonder if all actors who do Lear just end up playing their dads?

This beautiful depiction of the pain of theatrical embodiment, the excruciating doubleness of the actor’s body, both himself and another, is layered on top of a rather Freudian struggle with the father. As a character actor, Sher suffers (or enjoys) this kind of theatrical possession as part of his job, as opposed to personality actors who possess the role with their own sense of self, bringing the role to them. But this method of acting seems almost to extend to the external circumstances of Sher’s life, and the power of this theatrical possession is stretched and questioned. Indeed, one of the most powerful threads through Year of the Mad King is the ‘smell of mortality’ which originates in the playscript of King Lear (a description of Lear’s hand) but seems to find itself weaving into the lives of Sher and Doran. Roger Rees and Alan Rickman pass away in the course of this diary, titans of theatre. But closer to home is the death of Sher’s sister Verne: the progress of her terminal cancer weaves in and out of the narrative. Visiting her, Sher is struck by this connection with playscript:

If I had to sum up the chief sensation I get from the play it’s of the fragility of human life, the smell of mortality. Well, here I am, back at home in South Africa, right up against it, the reality of that fragility, that mortality.

Later, in rehearsals, Sher continues to draw (or discover) connections between the life of the playworld and the life of the real world; the inevitable discovery of Verne’s death, he believes ‘will make Lear’s lines look like mere playwriting’. But Lear’s lines are mere playwriting. Sher draws a binary between ‘reality’ and ‘playwriting’ with the former existing as a height to which playwriting can only aspire, and this binary seems to become a method for making sense of that possession which he undergoes as a character actor. But when the time comes for the real performance, when it really matters, the binary must dissolve, the grief of Lear and Sher becomes united:

While I’m waiting backstage for the last scene – ‘Howl, howl, howl’ – sitting on cart, with the dead Cordelia in my arms, an image always comes to me, which I don’t summon, but nor can I avoid it.

It was the moment of saying goodbye to Verne on our last day… was it in the foyer of the Radisson Blu? … hugging her thin body… and she suddenly conveying a strange sense of embarrassment… no, it was more like shame… her head down, her eyes blank… sorry, I won’t be seeing you again… how extraordinary that dying should carry shame… and then she and Joan walked away, out into an ordinary sunny afternoon…

This memory overwhelms me every single night. The back door of the set is pulled open, the cart is pushed on, and Lear’s grief comes out.

With this grief, the perfect prose of the diary breaks down to fragmentation, to ellipsis, but the playscript comes alive. In this moment, the tension between diary and script, between onstage and offstage, between playwriting and reality, but also their symbiosis, finds its fullest form. In this moment of deepest, most personal grief, these binaries seem to form a powerful connection, one which brings together the theatrical components which we’ve seen dissected and laid bare in Sher’s diaries.