My final BotW of 2019 continues the Year of Non-fiction, except this is one from the to read bookshelf and not from the library. If you’ve missed my look back at my reading obsessions over the year, you can find them here, and also my best books of the year. Coming up tomorrow, instead of the stats, is my look ahead to some new books coming in 2020. The stats will follow later in the week. Because I’m that good to you. Anyway, to the review.
Ever wondered what it takes to be an actor? Or more particularly if you’ve got what it takes to be an actor? You sort of half think it might be an easy life right? Wrong. Over the course of this book you watch (in your mind’s eye at least) Antony Sher agonise over taking a part, preparing for the part and playing the part. And as you read, you realise all the hidden hard work that goes into crafting a performance, an interpretation of words on paper.
The Fat Knight of the title is Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s iconic creations. But not, as Sher muses, one that The Big Names often play. He muses that there are traditionally two tracks for Shakespearean actors – one leads to King Lear, via Macbeth and Hamlet, and the other to Falstaff (via parts like Bottom) and that never the twain shall meet. But here is Sher – who famously played Richard III as a young man (which Sher also wrote a book about) and who I saw play Macbeth just after the turn of the century* – considering an offer, from his partner (now husband) no less, to play Falstaff. Illustrated with Sher’s own drawings, it’s fascinating and eye opening and incredibly readable. Sher’s husband is Gregory Doran, a director who at the start of the book is just taking over the helm at the RSC so as well as the musings on Falstaff, you get a peek behind the curtain at the RSC and in the world of theatre generally. The two are named as a power couple in the media in a couple of lists during the book, which perplexes Sher but reminds the reader that there are fairly large stakes here professionally. The production – and Sher’s performance – were a success but that never feels anywhere near certain as you read it.
I raced through this and although I didn’t see the productions of Henry IV Sher is writing about, I have seen a couple of the others that are mentioned in it and have seen some of the other actors in other things which made for an added bonus as a theatre nerd. I don’t know that you need to be a theatre nerd to enjoy this though – I think you just need to be someone who is interested in process and creation. If you’ve ever wondered how a production of Shakespeare is put together, whether the actors really understand what they’re saying and how they create a character, this would certainly interest to you. But if you’re a creator of something else, I think this would be worth a look as well – and you can compare your process in your field to this. I’m sure you’d get something out of it.
I had this on the shelf – I think it came from a work book sale a year or so ago (it came out in , but you should be able to get hold of a copy fairly easily from a bookshop with a theatre section. Mine is a hardback, but there is also a paperback edition now. If you want to buy online, may I suggest you go direct to Nick Hern Books, the publisher, where the price is within pennies of that of Amazon as I write this and will undoubtedly benefit them more direct. They’ve got 20% off everything at the moment – so in one of life’s more predictable moments, I ordered myself Sher’s other two books on acting – the aforementioned Year of the King and his latest, Year of the Mad King about King Lear – when I went to check this out.
Happy Reading and Happy New Year!
*Gosh that makes me feel old saying that, but although the turn of the century automatically makes me think of the start of the 20th century, we’re far enough into the 21st now that I probably should get used to it. I saw Macbeth with Sher and Harriet Walter at the Swan in Stratford sometime around 2000 – I still have the poster somewhere, but I’m not getting it out to check!