I was at the camera rehearsal for Henry IV Part II, the day before the production was to be broadcast live to cinemas.
As I watched Antony Sher commanding the stage as Shakespeare’s irregular humorist Sir John Falstaff, I remembered another time when I saw the same actor perform – it was at least 28 years ago in Brisbane, Australia, and he played Richard III, scuttling about the stage like a giant spider. I’ve never forgotten that performance. This time he made me reflect once again upon the charisma and power of a great actor, no matter the role he plays. You would think that the king himself would command the stage; but no, it was the low-life ne’er-do -well, the gluttonous lustful drunkard Falstaff, who did that.
For me, the most memorable moment of the play came when Sir John Falstaff bounds up to the newly-crowned Henry V, knowing that the former Prince Hal had once been his regular companion in the brothels and taverns of Eastcheap, London. He throws his arms wide to reclaim his former intimacy , in the hope and expectation of new honours and favours to be bestowed upon him now his former companion is successful, powerful, all-important… and the new king says to him:
“I know thee not, old man!”
The silence that then falls, as Falstaff sees that he has fallen from grace (if such it could be called), is poignant and profound.The new king proclaims that he has turned away from his former self, as one does from a dream one despises. And somehow, all that we might feel upon confronting our mispent past, and renouncing it, is encompassed in that moment.
Last month I read an interview with Sir Antony Sher in Warwickshire What’s On magazine. He talked about his career and how when young he was turned down for drama school. He was asked about how an actor moves forward in his talent to become great, and during his reply, he made this point:
Richard Burton had the most exciting talent which somehow he wasted… a special gift as an actor but he stopped caring about it… just sat back in his talent rather than pushing himself and exploring it. You’ve got to keep alive this very special job you’re doing… Meryl Streep has kept a certain integrity to her craft.
Surely this act of pushing and exploring is universally true of the creative life. I was reminded of those words as I came away from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with the stage-presence of Sir Antony Sher singing in the air around me.