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Antony Sher on the giant challenge of Falstaff

Celebrated actor Sir Antony Sher talks about his latest big role as the Royal Shakespeare Company comes to Newcastle

RSC'S Henry IV Part One: Antony Sher (Sir John Falstaff)
RSC'S Henry IV Part One: Antony Sher (Sir John Falstaff)

It’s the morning after the night before and Sir Antony Sher arrives in the aftermath of a mighty deluge for a scheduled interview at one of the Royal Shakespeare Company buildings in Stratford-upon-Avon. Smiling, soft-spoken – a little wet – it’s an unshowy entrance.

If he’s weary, it’s forgiveable. The day before we’d seen him roaring and roistering and generally commanding the stage of the town’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the guise of Falstaff. Antony Sher is known for never giving any role less than his all and it had been a hugely enjoyable performance.

Make that two performances, since we’d seen Henry IV Part I in the afternoon and the sequel, Henry IV Part II, in the evening. Falstaff looms very large in both these plays charting his relationship with young Prince Hal, heir to the king who lends his name to these two Shakespearean history plays but in fact has very little to do in either of them (for which, politically, there were very good reasons).

The actor is pleased I’ve seen both parts.

“It’s such a great story and journey, particularly for Falstaff and Hal – from being such great buddies in Part I to the rejection scene in Part II (when Prince Hal is crowned Henry V and puts all laddish mucking about – and hence the rogueish fat knight – behind him).

“For us as actors it’s an amazing journey to go on but I imagine for the audience as well.”

From Thursday, when the RSC returns to the Theatre Royal, North East theatre-goers will get the chance to embark on that journey in the best of company.

The Henry IV plays, along with the other history plays, are Shakespeare’s telling of a thrilling part of England’s story. They are action-packed and full of great lines. And they have Antony Sher who, since his groundbreaking performance as Richard III 30 years ago, has tackled some of the biggest Shakespearean roles.

But never Falstaff... until now.

“It was just not on my radar,” he admits.

“There’s something about the reputation of the part and the kind of actors who play the part that just wasn’t me.

“The curious thing is that for the past few years, Greg (Doran), my partner and the director, had been trying to think of who he’d cast as Falstaff because he knew this was coming up.

“Over a meal in a restaurant or whatever we’d discuss who could do it. It was almost like a game.

“In the end he offered it to Ian McKellen who, for various reasons, didn’t want to do it. But he said to Greg, ‘You’re living with the man who should play it’.

“Ian had just seen me in a play called Travelling Light playing a character who I suppose you could call Falstaff’s Jewish cousin, very larger than life. Ian had liked me in that.

“So really it was a case of Greg finding someone who could play Falstaff right under his nose.”

Then it was a case of Sher needing to be convinced. He’d never imagined himself as Falstaff, he tells me, which begs the question: What Falstaffian characteristics did he feel he lacked?

“Well, for a start there’s the size, the shape of the man. Most actors who play him probably have to wear a fat suit because nobody is built like that. Somehow in my mind it had to be a very large man. Falstaff is such a colossal character in every sense.

“Also it has a reputation as the great comic role which is again not something I’d think of myself as doing.”

You can see his point. Sher made his name playing Richard III as a monster on crutches but he has also played Iago and Shylock who are anything but sympathetic characters.

“What convinced me was reading it,” says Sher, “and starting to think of it as a great character role rather than a great comic role – because I’ve always prided myself on being a great character actor.

“I thought: I’m going to have to create his look. He’s got a whole different way of being that I can create and it was a journey I could go on.

“It has been a real adventure for me and terribly exciting to discover a huge Shakespearean part that I hadn’t had any fantasies about doing.”

It did mean the fat suit, although Sher winces slightly as he utters the words.

“I don’t like the phrase because it sounds like something you can buy off the rail and this thing was very carefully designed and made by a man who specialises in these things.

“It is made with weights to make it move like a body. It makes it heavy to wear and very hot but I think it looks very convincing and we took an enormous amount of time getting that right. When the armour goes on as well, in Part I, I’m carrying a lot of extra weight and I have to sit down between scenes. Literally I come off stage and there’s a chair waiting.”

Shakespeare, in a little-appreciated indication of his genius, made life as easy as possible for the actor landed with the challenge of Falstaff.

Explains Sher: “There’s no modern play, however big or demanding the role, that has anything like the big Shakespeares, and I’ve done a few of them now.

“They take everything you’ve got. It’s physical, vocal, emotional... it’s a big task you take on.

“Part of it is learning to pace yourself. You just have to save yourself in certain sections because you know a big one is coming up. With Falstaff, unlike some of the other big ones I’ve played, Shakespeare has written in rest breaks. Regularly he’ll have a scene on and a scene off. I was very grateful.”

Having steeped himself in the writing and the character, Sher has come to appreciate Falstaff and all that lies behind him.

“It’s such a complex, extraordinary piece of writing. It’s so modern, isn’t it? He’s like the ultimate anti-hero. It’s extraordinary to think of Shakespeare writing him at that time.

“In the play he has lines about being young and, in a way, he is. He has this youthful spirit and part of the beauty of what Shakespeare has written is that it’s about an old man who is actually starting to feel his age, particularly in the second play.

“There’s so much richness in the character. I think what all audiences enjoy is somebody who breaks the rules. In real life we don’t really like people like that but Shakespeare is very good at writing them for us to watch from the safety of our theatre seats.

“Richard IIl and Iago (from Othello) are completely disreputable people but you’ll find an audience loves their wickedness. Falstaff has something of that. He’s not killing people but he is turning the world upside down.”

Antony Sher is 65. He was born in South Africa but came to Britain as a young man after compulsory military service to train as an actor. He is a stalwart of the Royal Shakespeare Company and was knighted for services to theatre in 2000.

His longtime partner, the aforementioned Greg Doran, is now artistic director of the RSC, having been associated with the company for some 25 years.

If Doran is wedded to the theatre, then so – quite literally – is Sher (the couple were one of the first to enter into a civil partnership back in 2005).

“When we work together as director/actor, as we do on this, we have a very strict rule that we can’t discuss work at home,” he says with a smile. “The first time we did a Shakespeare together, it was disastrous. The arguments were terrible.”

Both are passionate about the theatre.

“There are very few films or television dramas that have scripts as good as the ones I’m doing at the moment,” says Sher.

“That is just the bonus you get with Shakespeare. You’re working with the best material that has ever been and, as an actor, it’s just so satisfying.

“We’ve been doing it for months, we’re going to be doing it for months and it just keeps yielding more and more. You’ll never entirely excavate it all because it’s just so deep and rich. I love that.”

He is jotting all his feelings about the part into his diary which is the basis of his new book about playing Falstaff which is to be published next year.

On the subject of Newcastle, Sher is of the old school, still referring to the RSC’s relationship with the city as “a very special one”.

“Since my very first season, 1982, I’ve been going there with the company. We all love it. You ask any RSC actor. We get there and it’s like seeing old friends.”

Many of them will be in the audience to see Antony Sher in the two Henry IV plays which also feature Alex Hassell as Prince Hall, Jasper Britton as Henry IV and Paola Dionisotti. They run, more or less alternately, from tomorrow until October 4. Box office: 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk.

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