I bought Anthony Sher’s autobiography on a rainy day in Stratford-upon-Avon, and have just finished devouring it. What follows is shameless filleting of the text, a collection of Sher’s ideas about actors and acting that I found sufficiently interesting to refract them through my own prose.
As this is a very anecdotic book, it seems appropriate to start with a vignette. Sher is playing the Fool in King Lear at Liverpool’s Everyman theatre alongside Jonathan Pryce. Some way into the run, Pryce kicks our hero unexpectedly and very hard.
We were on stage, in performance, doing one of the storm scenes, when Jonathan Pryce’s foot suddenly contacted my arse quite forcibly. I’d been flattered to hear, via Kate Fahy, then his girlfriend, now wife, that he was going out front to watch my first scene, and she’d never known him do this before – but the kick was less flattering. It said, ‘Wake up!’ It said, ‘You’re on automatic, you’re just doing what you’ve done before.’ It was a rough lesson, but a good one. It’s essential to reinvent, remint each moment in a play, again and again, night after night. It’s perfectly possible to treat stage acting like driving a car – your body goes through the motions while your head thinks about the shopping – but this doesn’t make for the best theatre. I learned a lot from Jonathan Pryce. About danger on stage. There are certain scenes – of crisis, of emergency – when real danger is required. Something you can’t fake. The actor has to send a frightening jolt through the air, surprising the audience, surprising the other actors, surprising himself. Jonathan could do this naturally. I couldn’t So I watched, I learned, I changed.
Sher does a good job of bringing out the moral of this story already, but it’s worth noting too that an effort to avoid what Peter Brook would call ‘dead theatre’ runs throughout this text. Pryce’s kick brought Sher’s Fool back to life, and there are many other examples of the importance of variety and novelty. We are told, for instance, that there is no “golden rule” for acting, “no blueprint”, so every role must be approached freshly to give it life. Similarly, the process of doing research for a role is a “wake-up call”, saving the performer from becoming dead and simply producing drama which becomes “a kind of dream, a kind of sleep, where we imitate art rather than life, believe in fiction’s received ideas, fall for Hollywood’s view of the world”.
Yet what, then, does Sher mean by life? By live theatre? In this book, it comes across most clearly when he writes about Chekhov and Shakespeare, and their ability to show all the contradictions of the human condition.
Life is both intense and boring. We feel this every day. It’s a solid, clumsy, earthy substance, and it’s air – most wonderfully it’s air. Chekhov manages to put this down on paper and you get to breathe it through the character. As with Shakespeare’s people, Chekhov’s are huge, untidy portraits. Tie the loose ends together at your peril. We’re constantly drawn to doing this as actors, to understand who it is we’re playing and to try to explain him to the audience: My character is like this. Well, you can’t with Shakespeare and Chekhov. Their writing is too realistic. We humans are endlessly contradictory and that’s how we’re portrayed in their plays.
This way of describing the richness of these playwrights, their ability to capture all the paradoxes of life itself corresponds to what Sher calls great acting. In what is probably my favourite passage in the entire text, this is how, inspired by Michael Gambon’s performance of Lear, Sher describes it:
Great acting. I think it’s about contradictions and conflict. Those opposites in our nature, living side by side yet often at war: the adult and the child, the animal and the intellect, the male and the female. The last is most compelling of course. 166: The sex thing. Actresses with balls, actors with receptiveness. Brando, Olivier, Scofield … they all have a very complicated sexual presence. Take it away and you get John Wayne. And then my head falls forwad, like Dad’s, as the performance begins. But the good ones … Bette Davis, Judi Dench, Fiona Shaw … there’s nothing simple in their work, but different energies, tugging, worrying, enriching one another. The very things that we seek to quell in real life – our appetites, our childishness, our fear – these things make for the best acting, I think. And Gambon illustrated it perfectly as Lear that day. A roaring old lion, yet infantile and frightened; a brutal, blokish man, yet prone to tears, delicacy, compassion; an earth creature, yet touched with grace.
So now we know what great acting (and great writing for the stage) entails: the capturing of life’s own variety. Yet what, for Sher, is acting?
To answer this, Sher recalls two phrases from Burgess’s translation of Cyrano de Bergerac: “the visible soul” and “the casual dress of flesh”. As a young performer, he was most interested in the latter, the way an actor could hide himself in public behind his outward, physical show. As Sher gets older, however, this autobiography charts a clear progression from “flesh” to “soul”, which culminates here in his performance of Macbeth and a point when, feeling nervous before the play begins, he can no longer distinguish between his emotions and those of the part.
We said we had to contact real fear for this play and in a way I’ve succeeded so well it’s threatening to hijack the exercise. I’ve always dismissed the idea of the actor taking the role home with him. But that was when I regarded acting as more about the casual dress of flesh than the visible soul. I’m less certain now. Now I’m sometimes aware of strange mind games when I’m on stage, a blurring of me and the role.
This passage is drawn right from the end of the book, and will conclude my whistle-stop tour. The constants of Sher’s thought seem to be the need to bring life to the stage, the work both actor and author must undertake to inhabit (or ‘breathe’) the contradictions of human existence, and, finally, a growing appreciation for the emotional investment of the performer in the part he plays, creating the “visible soul” as he does so. With respect to my own specialty of older acting theory, there are some striking similarities: what Sher calls ‘contradictions’, an eighteenth-century critic like John Hill would term ‘variety’; and the shift from “casual dress of flesh” to “visible soul” is a modern rerun of debates between ‘sentimental’ and ‘calculating’ acting that Diderot examines in his Paradoxe.