From Falstaff to Loman: behind the scenes with Antony Sher

It seems that Sher is never not speaking on the radio or being spoken about. 

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“We decided he was an alcoholic, because there are several sections in part one where he says he’s got to clean up his act and then, a few moments later, he’s doing exactly what he was doing before . . .”

Antony Sher was speaking to Claudia Winkleman (8 May, 10pm) about ­playing Falstaff for the RSC and somewhat automatic-pilotly covering the same areas that his just-published diary of the production covered, recently abridged for Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Pre-first-night dreams, coping with nerves . . .

The British have a fondness for this sort of memoir. It provides that comforting sense of the extended family – casts, crews, intense shared experiences in touring theatre or on movie sets – that actors seem to thrive in. Yet it can sometimes feel that the BBC has handed the airwaves over to certain people. What with Falstaff, a new production of Death of a Salesman (in which he plays Willy Loman) and the burial of ­Richard III, it seems that Sher is never not speaking on the radio or being spoken about. The Today programme’s coverage of that absurd funeral culminated with Sher reciting, “Now is the winter of our discontent . . .” introduced forelock-tuggingly, as though he were Olivier.

In truth the actor, now 65, can sound fairly tremulous. But even if Sher’s voice is not what it was, his Loman is something to behold. Thickening the meaning, he makes you believe that Arthur Miller’s play is actually all about charisma-envy. College educations and Studebakers, giant refrigerators and paid-up mortgages – they are nothing compared to being “rugged, well liked, all round”. That’s the American dream – to be liked! (Richard wanted to be liked, too. “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks . . .” he concedes, limping towards villainy.)

There was a nice, spontaneous bit in the interview with Winkleman in which Sher recalled finding one of the crutches he had used in his 1984 production of Richard III, so many years later, in the rehearsal room for Falstaff.

“It isn’t life and death,” shrugged Sher to Winkleman of all that effort and panic and memory, in a moment that sounded far more self-effacing than anything that had gone before. “It’s just a dusty prop.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph