Excerpt: ‘Year of the Mad King’ by Antony Sher

What’s it like to play the role of Lear onstage? In this excerpt from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries (published Apr 3), actor Antony Sher gives us a window into the rehearsal process for the Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear in 2016. (The sketches included with this excerpt are also done by Sher.) Sher will star as Lear in New York later this month as the RSC production, directed by Gregory Doran, plays at BAM Apr 7-29.


Antony Sher as Lear
Self as Lear

Monday 27 June 2016

Week One of rehearsals proper (we have seven weeks in all), with the full company.

Greg [Doran, Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and director of the production of King Lear] stands up to make his opening speech. He begins with a head-on confrontation: ‘Charles Lamb advised people to keep re-reading King Lear and avoid its staged travesties. Well, I’m here to tell you that the point of these rehearsals will be – precisely – to avoid staging any kind of travesty!’

Then he says, ‘Lear is elemental. If Hamlet is cold, if Othello is heat, if Macbeth is darkness, then Lear is STORM.’ He looks round the group. ‘Is Lear a story that ultimately makes moral sense? Is it a story of learning and redemption? Or is it something else altogether? Because the play ends not with order or disorder, but with a strange, profound unease.’

He goes on: ‘Samuel Beckett is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Lear. When Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in 1948, it was in a century which had already witnessed two world wars, the dropping of two atomic bombs, and a Holocaust of unimaginable cruelty and suffering. Beckett could no longer see the world as some kind of moral universe, with some kind of guiding principle behind it. It was bleak and absurd. The same was true for Shakespeare. The Gunpowder Plot had shown Catholics trying to murder the Protestant king, his family, and all of Parliament, so where was the moral universe? And the plague. If the plague could kill thousands and thousands of people – remember that the playhouses had to close in 1605, the year before Lear – where again was there any kind of moral universe?’

Greg talks of the fragility of life and randomness of violence in modern life: ‘The massacres on the Norwegian island, in the Moscow theatre and the Paris Bataclan, or at Columbine and Orlando… well, in Lear, Edmund has the same malignant narcissism as those killers. He believes that s—t has been dealt to him – being born a bastard – so it’s justifiable for him to deal s—t to others.

He tries to destroy his brother, he brings down his father in the process, and he causes the deaths of Goneril and Regan. He’s not obeying any moral principle.’

When Greg relates the stage history of Lear, I’m surprised to learn something new (though it’s perhaps known to fans of one of Alan Bennett’s most famous plays): during the period when King George III was mad – 1811 to 1820 – Lear wasn’t allowed to be performed at all, not even with Nahum Tate’s happy ending. Then three years after the ban, in 1823, Edmund Kean staged it with the original ending. But audiences were so shocked that after just a couple of performances Kean was forced to revert to the Nahum Tate ending again.

Greg finishes with some quotes about the play:

Bernard Shaw spoke of the blasphemous despair of Lear, but added, ‘No man would ever write a better tragedy.’

Jan Kott said Lear was comparable to Bach’s Mass in B minor, Wagner’s Parsifal, Beethoven’s 5th and 9th Symphonies, and Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

Harold Bloom said that Lear ‘announces the beginning and end of human nature’.

And Donald Wolfit said (when advising an actor about to play Lear), ‘Get a Cordelia you can carry, and watch your Fool!’

Handing over to [designer] Niki Turner, Greg mentions that the design has sought to achieve something which was said of the Russian film: ‘The power of reality, devoid of everything specific.’

Then Niki does a model-showing, and puts all the costume drawings on the wall. She really has achieved an epic simplicity.

It has a lot of impact, like Greg’s speech. You can feel the excitement in the room.

As part of the RSC’s continuing friendship with China, joining us for this first week are three Chinese observers: Li Liuyi, who’ll be directing Lear in Beijing next year; Professor Daniel Yang, who’ll be doing a new Mandarin translation, helped by our own ‘translation’ (i.e. Greg’s practice of getting the whole company to paraphrase Shakespeare English into modern English); and Shihui Weng, who was on our recent tour [King and Country, a cycle comprised of Shakespeare history plays Richard II, Henry IV: Part One and Part Two and Henry V], and is now one of the producers of our cross-cultural work with China.

And James Shapiro is here for the week too. I like him a lot. Tall, lanky, Jewish-blond, a playful spirit and streetwise Brooklyn manner, but a seriously good Shakespeare scholar – one of the best in the world.

James Shapiro
James Shapiro

He told us all the story of coming through immigration when he flew in yesterday. The officer asked what he did. He replied that he was a Shakespeare professor. She said, ‘Which is your favourite play?’

James said to us, ‘I guess just because I’m working on it at the moment – I’m advising on a production in Shakespeare in the Park – I said, Troilus and Cressida. The woman paused. I suddenly wondered if it had been a trick question. If I answered wrong, would I be refused entry? Then she grinned and said, “Mine is King Lear.”’

He also told us that, earlier this year, this big Bard year [2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death], he was interviewed by a journalist, who asked which Shakespeare character was his favourite?

He answered, ‘It’s the First Servant in the Gloucester blinding scene, the guy who challenges his master, Cornwall, who’s doing the blinding. The servant tries to stop him, and indeed wounds him mortally. I love his bravery, his sense of justice.’

Greg remarked, ‘He doesn’t even have a name.’

James laughed. ‘No. Let’s call him Harold. Harold the Avenger!’

‘And we haven’t cast him yet,’ said Greg, looking round the circle of actors. Lots of eager faces looked back – eager to play James Shapiro’s favourite Shakespeare character.

This is an edited extract from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books.


Hear more from Antony Sher in our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast interview on playing Shakespearean roles and his books Year of the Mad King, Year of the Fat Knight, and Year of the King.

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