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Monday, February 26, 2018

Playing Lear

Antony Sher as King Lear, Graham Turner as the Fool. Photo by Ellie Kurttz
By Christian Barclay

Shakespeare’s tragic monarch is one of the most coveted roles in the classical theater canon–– and it is also one of the most demanding. King Lear’s delirious journey through the play calls for an actor who can plumb the depths of human suffering, portraying a betrayal of both the body and the mind. It has challenged no lesser actors than Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Geoffrey Rush, and in recent seasons at BAM, Frank Langella, Derek Jacobi, and Ian McKellen.

The process that goes into inhabiting a character like Lear is often all-encompassing. For Antony Sher, the acclaimed British actor who will portray the monarch in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear (April 7–29 at the BAM Harvey), the work took a familiar form––he wrote a book. Sher has documented his character development for several of his roles with the RSC. The books read like diaries, covering not just in-depth rehearsal work, but the everyday occurrences that can lead to unexpected insights.

Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries (Nick Hern Books) begins during the summer of 2015 and covers the year-long process of bringing the monarch to life. (A doubly difficult effort considering Sher was also playing Falstaff in the RSC’s King and Country history play cycle (BAM, 2016) during the same time; he received rave reviews in the role.) Here are some excerpts from the soon to be published book.

Photo by Ellie Kurttz


First thoughts:
“As for Lear’s journey itself, I’m puzzled. What is Shakespeare saying? That, deprived of everything, a brutish, unforgiving king turns into a lost old man? At the moment, I don’t feel excited or inspired. I just feel overwhelmed by the problems of the piece. But I have to remind myself that, seeing it in performance, it hits you like a force of nature, and seems to be the greatest play ever written.”

“Lear learning”:“As the session progresses I gradually realize that this present task has become a most unexpected pleasure. Lear’s language is exhilarating: his monstrous rages, his mad ramblings, his quiet moments of perception. What a sensation to speak it all, a sensation in both senses of the word: a phenomenal event, and this physical feeling going through me…! What did Alan Howard say?...Learning Shakespeare is like standing under a waterfall.”

A possessing spirit:
“So of course he’s Lear, or Lear is him, whichever way round it works. And of course that’s why the part boils and fumes inside me, of course there’s all that tumult––it’s like a kind of possession, but no longer by some fictional character from drama, but by a spirit I know all too bloody well, inside bloody out.”

The source of madness:
“I sat back, astounded. I’d just heard a perfect and completely logical explanation of Lear’s mental journey through the play. And it’s exactly the kind of thing I can respond to: ordinary human behavior––an old man in cold weather, catching a chill, a fever, starting to hallucinate––transformed by Shakespeare into profound revelations about us all. So. Not dementia. Delirium.”

Lear as a force of a nature:
“I got out of bed, came downstairs, made a cup of chamomile tea, and jotted some notes (if things are troubling my mind at night, it’s always helpful to offload them onto paper):
It’s said that Lear needs to be a force of nature. But he isn’t, he can’t be, no human can be.
So the moments of impotence are vital. Like when he loses his way in ‘the reason not the need’ speech:
‘I will have such revenges on you both, That all the world shall––I will do such things–– What they are yet I know not…’
(This is brilliant: Shakespeare, the most eloquent writer ever, makes his character inarticulate.)
Let the impossibility of playing Lear be the very way of playing it.
He’s trying to be a giant, a Titan, A FORCE OF NATURE, but in reality he’s just an old man, with failing powers…”

When the RSC’s King Lear premiered in Stratford in 2016, Sher’s opening night emotions followed a somewhat familiar actor’s sequence: fear, anxiety, excitement, and exhaustion. In the Epilogue, he reflects on the significance of this particular performance, within both the production’s run and his career. “And now it’s no longer this almighty, possibly undoable task,” Sher writes, “this greatest-of-great-masterpieces, this Everest of Everything. Now it’s just another show.”


Christian Barclay is a publicist at BAM.

©2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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