Understandably given its bulk, Antony Sher’s Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent production of Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays had a long period of gestation before it emerged, fully formed and laughing, from under the covers of a bed also occupied by Prince Hal and a couple of prostitutes. Sher tells the story in diary form, as he did that of his Year of the King (1985), in which he described how his sensational Richard III arrived ‘before his time into this breathing world’.
Falstaff was not obvious casting for one who does not profess to be a comic actor. Sher has written that he prefers to forget his Malvolio in Twelfth Night — indeed, he omits it from the list of his roles given here — and his partner and director, Gregory Doran, had offered Falstaff to other actors before mentioning it to him. Describing how he approached the task of learning the role — or indeed roles, because the Falstaff of Henry IV Part Two differs considerably from that of Part One — Sher discusses the difference between a ‘personality actor’ (one who ‘makes the part come to him’) and himself as a ‘character actor’ ( ‘I go to the part’). Physical transformation is part of the process. We learn a lot about costumes and wigs and make-up and fat suits — or ‘body suits’, as Sher prefers to call them — and about the multiple, sometimes intimate, inconveniences that result from wearing them.
Imaginative transformation is no less important a part of the process than physical. Sher is a visual artist as well as a writer and actor. He does not over-glamorise the profession in which he has had the most conspicuous success, saying indeed that he enjoys acting less than either writing or drawing — ‘It’s too much like hard and boring graft: doing a run of eight shows a week is a conveyor-belt job.’ Drawing — exemplified in the book’s numerous illustrations — is for him both a form of therapy and a mode of entry into the imagination of the characters he portrays, enabling him to objectify his visual imagining of forms that the physical transformation may take.
Sher writes of technical aspects of the actor’s art, the sheer difficulty of learning lines and of remembering them under pressures of both rehearsal and performance, and of his personal approach to the task. For Falstaff he memorises the long speeches first, the shared dialogue later. The role is written mostly in prose, which he finds harder to learn than verse — ‘there’s music in iambic pentameter, which sticks in the brain like a tune.’ He discusses tricks that he finds useful in making the words come easily to the tongue: ‘word association, letter association, all kinds of alliteration, half-hidden tunes in the dialogue (Shakespeare is good with these.)’ ‘Then the task is simply one of repetition, of developing a kind of muscle memory with the line, like a dance step or a fight move: it can only be this way.’
He writes too of his exploration of his character’s personality, seeing Falstaff as ‘a real alcoholic, with drink making him suffer as well as rejoice’. He is perceptively generous about fellow actors, previous great Falstaffs such as Ralph Richardson, who ‘didn’t act so much as show you his soul’, and Desmond Barrit, and present colleagues such as Oliver Ford-Davies, his Justice Shallow, who ‘has a gift for making Shakespeare sound spontaneous — searching for a word, a name, while keeping the rhythm of the text going’.
But this book is far from simply a primer on the art of acting. Sher shows us too how his work on the role fits into the rhythms of his daily life over the 15 months that he works on it, punctuated by other performances on stage and film, interrupted by international events such as the deaths of Nelson Mandela — of special significance to a South African — and of Margaret Thatcher, holidays on safari and in the south of France, visits to Buckingham Palace, Christmas with his family, as well as the mundane matters of the rehearsal room and of domestic life, the pleasures of living by the River Avon and the bother of the cooker that goes wrong.
The tone of his book is relaxed, intimate, even confidential, open about his personal foibles and relationships. But he can rise also to lyricism, to perceptive remarks about Shakespeare’s style — in The Winter’s Tale he ‘had become a master jazz musician, able to improvise around the beat while keeping the melody going’ — and to an eloquent description of swans taking off from the water before his dressing-room window. This is a book about life as well as about acting.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.29 Tel: 08430 600033. Stanley Wells is a Shakespearean scholar. His Great Shakespeare Actors is published this month.