Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries is Sher’s third book based on the journals he kept while preparing major roles. The other two were about working on Richard III for the RSC and the Primo Levi piece for the National. It is fascinating to see how an actor prepares a role and the daily processes through which he goes. These diaries are, it seems, both an aid to creating the character and in some way cathartic after a hard day’s work at the coal face of Thespis.
Mr Sher has a very easy, familiar style which is very enjoyable to read. The book is full of good stories, one of the funniest being about donning the Falstaff fat-suit for the first time and his concern about how he would be able, if at all, to pee while wearing it. Sher is a talented man; not only does he act and publish diaries of his travails, but he has also written some novels, an autobiography and published a book of drawings and paintings. I don’t know where he gets the time – he certainly doesn’t strike me as the sort of actor who spends much time “resting”. He is also very eloquent, being able to describe, not only the practical processes of rehearsing a play, but the emotions as well.
Both parts of Henry IV were directed by Sher’s partner, RSC artistic director Gregory Doran, and it was amusing to discover that in the very early days of preparation for the production Sher was not even considered for the part of Falstaff and the two of them mulled over which actors might be suitable until Ian McKellen pointed out that Sher himself would be the ideal choice. Sher’s initial reticence was based on the feeling that he was physically too small and that Falstaff is always played tall and very fat. The fatness was resolved with the fat-suit, the height . . . well, that was not.
This book lays bare the agonies, doubts and torments that actors go through when creating a mammoth Shakespeare part, especially as we have already seen many actors play it before. A Sher describes it, “The feeling is a curious mixture of excitement and dread . . . Certainly any actor who’s played any of Shakespeare’s great roles will be familiar with it, while people who call us luvvies won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. I would luv to make one of those people learn a part like Falstaff and I would luv to stand next to them in the wings before their first entrance – and I would luv to clear up whatever mess they leave on the floor behind them.”
Very enjoyable and enlightening. Loved it. Michael Hasted
Published by Nick Hern Books 2015