In 1999, I read Year of the King, Anthony Sher's brilliant memoir about playing Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I'd been looking for something to help prepare my mind and heart for a summer at the American Conservatory Theater's professional training program, which for years I'd longed to attend. Now that I had the chance, I wanted to make the most of it.
This book changed me as an actor, in the best possible way. I'll always be grateful that I read it, especially at that formative time.
Richard was Sher's breakthrough role in 1984, and he went on to play all the coveted roles, among them Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Iago in Othello and the title characters in Macbeth and King Lear. He won countless Best Actor awards including the BAFTA, Olivier and Drama Desk, and wrote ten more books and several plays. In 2000 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Universally admired by other actors, he inspired the great Helen Mirren to say this about their first artistic encounter:
“I read the first words of our scene together and he answered. I raised my eyes above the pages to look at him more precisely, as with simply those minimal words I immediately realized I was opposite a great actor. Of course he went on to become the celebrated artist he was, but the extraordinary ability was born in him, as natural to him as breathing: it was as clear as a summer sky.”
My stomach lurched when I read about Sher's death last week at the age of 72. Of cancer, dammit. Another irreplaceable, uniquely gifted, precious artist is gone. May he rest in peace.
If you haven't read Year of the King I envy you; you'll be both hugely entertained and uniquely inspired. Here's the publisher's description:
In 1984 Antony Sher, hailed as “the most exciting actor of his generation” by the Observer, made his debut – on homemade crutches – as the infamous Richard III in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of the play. He would go on to win the Laurence Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for best actor. In his own words and sketches, he chronicles his personal and professional journey to this award-winning performance, from the moment he was offered the role to opening night, in the critically acclaimed book Year of the King.
From his brainstorm to use crutches to bring the king's deformity to life, to his research for the role, which included watching interviews with psychopaths, reading about mass murderers, and speaking with doctors and physically challenged individuals, to his visit to his homeland of South Africa, to his experiences in working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the reader is given a front-row seat to Sher's physical and mental preparation – or rather transformation – for his landmark performance as “the bottled spider.”