This past Saturday, April 23rd, I treated myself to something special – both parts of Henry IV, presented as part of a history play marathon by the RSC at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Despite being there on Shakespeare’s birthday (and the 400th anniversary of his death), it wasn’t the plays themselves that brought me there, nor the company performing them – I’m not such a Bardolater or Anglophile as to automatically genuflect towards everything they do. No, the allure of this marathon was the opportunity to see one particular performance – the Falstaff of Antony Sher, one of my artistic heroes.
A lot has already been written about this interpretation; if you’re able to take in theater in New York, or by some chance take frequent trips to Great Britain, you’ve hopefully been encouraged to see this performance long before you clicked on this blog post. If you have a chance to see it, note how Sher is willing to bring out the parasitic nature of the character, his casual cruelty, without ever sacrificing the humor (it’s a comedic Shakespearean character who’ll actually make you laugh!). Listen to how the details of the language are used to their fullest without ever derailing the forward momentum of the performance. Pay special attention to the voice he creates for the decrepit knight – practically gargling with phlegm and drink, except in the quiet moments where he contemplates his mortality, especially the renunciation by Prince Hal at the end, as if it’s an armor that’s been pierced.
But as marvelous as he is, Sher isn’t a hero to me because of the performances of his I’ve seen – apart from this, I’ve only had the chance to see him once before (though it was a doozy – the now-legendary production of Uncle Vanya with Ian McKellen at the National Theater). No, it’s because I know of no other actor who is as good at writing about acting as he is. In addition to the recent Year of the Fat Knight, which discusses his Falstaff, there’s Beside Myself, Woza Shakespeare, Primo Time, and the book which first caught my attention as an impressionable theatre student – Year of the King, which discusses his Richard III for the RSC in 1984 and which is still the best book on acting I’ve read. Partly, it’s because his warts-and-all description of the process – his obsessive research, his insecurities as he gets his voice and body into shape to play the part, the navigating of rehearsal room and theater politics – is the most accurate you’re going to find. Partly, it’s the literary quality of the writing itself – you’ll find fewer characters in late 20th-century literature who can compare with Sher’s depiction of the dresser Black Mac. And partly, it’s because the world he describes is so incredibly seductive – so much so that I have difficulty with Sher’s other books precisely because I always want it to be the RSC in the mid-80s, where passionate artists are railing against apartheid and Thatcher but have the luxury of this marvelously-funded base of operations, and there’s always carousing to be had at the Dirty Duck at the end of the day. Sher’s description of a conversation with his mother could apply to any of us readers diving into his pages, wanting to live in that sort of an artistic world:
“We have one of our talks. A familiar pattern. She begins by interrogating me very thoroughly about life in England and in the theatre, savouring every detail. It’s so clearly what she would have wanted for herself, had the choices been available. So she listens in wonderment – a curious reversal of roles – like a child hearing of the joys and thrills promised in adult life.”
–Year of the King, p. 75
Moreover, what comes through in his writing is a strong overall artistic perspective at work. Sher is both an insider and an outsider – a gay Jewish South African, growing up painfully aware of his outsider status yet also profoundly insulated from the realities of apartheid. As he comes to political awareness as an adult, he continually describes what he refers to as the “persecuted becoming the persecutor” syndrome as he tries to make sense of his background, and it’s an insight that fuels his characterizations. (It’s an insight that contemporary American artists should take the time to read and think about as they wrestle with modern questions of “privilege.”) It’s a thru-line for his work, and it’s clearly important to him that such a political thru-line exists. Here’s his tale of receiving life-changing advice from a hero of his own, Liverpool Everyman Theatre Artist Director Alan Dossor:
“’Bollocks,’ retorted Dossor. ‘You won’t become a really good actor until you put yourself on the line, till the job’s vital – which plays you do, why you do them, how you do them – it’s got to mean something to you, man, before it’s going to mean something to the audience. Otherwise just go be a plumber – y’know, if it’s only a craft, a skill – just go ride a bike. If it’s only talent you’re offering, don’t bother us with it – there’s plenty in this country – only bother us if you’ve got something to say!’”
–Beside Myself, p. 118
And this is the point, the thing about artistic heroes. We don’t just admire them for what they’ve done; we admire them for demonstrating that what they’ve done can be done in the first place. This has been brought home in recent days with the death of Prince, as we’ve reminded ourselves of his boundary-shattering creativity (be they boundaries of musical genre or personal identity). With Sher, it’s his hyper-detailed dedication, the obsessiveness with which he researches his creations and his willingness to plumb the most unsettling parts of his own psyche for fuel. And it’s that, the chance to see the end result of such a journey, which made the seeing of it more than worth a long subway journey of my own.
We need to see our heroes while we can.