Dominic Dromgoole

As full of grief as age

Year of the Mad King is an affecting description of the physical pain and loss that Sher himself suffered while rehearsing for the role

Why are rehearsal diaries so compelling? One approaches them with cynicism and then ends up reading with racing heart through to the early hours, hurtling with a shared terror towards the described first night.

First and foremost, there is the gossip, the sense of being behind closed doors, and gaining off-guard glimpses into the nature of those who are frequently well-fortressed. The character of this gossip changes markedly as the actor-diarist grows older. In youth it is all about which tearaway deals the best cocaine to enable company shagging: in age it morphs into which besuited figure makes the most ruefully telling remark at the latest in a series of memorials for fallen comrades.

There is also the familiarity of the expected pattern, now established through a plethora of actors’ diaries, and of savage lampoons of the same. There is an inevitable rhythm, beginning with the ‘should I?/shouldn’t I?’ agony when the job is offered. This always takes far longer on the page than I suspect it does in life. When there are plenty of lines and a title character, doubts are usually quite swiftly circumvented.

There is the preparation, with its aggregation of external details and internal flashes of light. There are the doubts, when nothing seems easy, and everything, even getting out of bed, seems mountainous. There are the surges of euphoria when individual discoveries are made, and when the group starts to sing as a unit, enabling each and every one to be better together than they can be alone. There is the wild panic before opening, when the actor loses all sense not only of their character, but also of their own personality. And then there is the immense surprise of the landing, when the world does not explode in flames or drown in floods, but actors and audience share in the humble and curious pleasure of making a story together anew.

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