Understanding the Mad King: Antony Sher on rehearsing King Lear

Leading actor Antony Sher’s new book Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries provides an intimate, first-hand account of his process researching, rehearsing and performing arguably Shakespeare’s most challenging role, Lear, in the acclaimed 2016 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

This extract, written during rehearsals only a few weeks before the production opened, takes us behind the scenes of the RSC, offering a window on director Gregory Doran and the cast’s sharp, insightful interrogation of the text – and how events occurring in the world outside fed into the production. Also included are a selection of Sher’s magnificent illustrations, which feature throughout the book.

Thursday 7 July 2016

When I walk into the rehearsal room this morning, I find one wall transformed. Covered with sheets of paper: some with images, some with text. It’s the research that Anna [Girvan, assistant director] has led, about the homeless in Shakespeare’s time. Much of it is from two books by Gamini Salgado: The Elizabethan Underworld and Cony-catchers and Bawdy Baskets.

Reading the extracts, I learn that the failure of harvests in the 1590s, and subsequent shortage of food, led to the Enclosure Acts, where people were thrown off common land and deprived of their livelihoods. Some turned to petty crime, while others took to roaming the countryside.

This is the population that Greg [Doran, director of King Lear and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] wants to represent, as a kind of chorus, in the production.

Prince Philip’s Lear

I go over to my bag, find a picture, and stick it up among the others on the wall. It’s the one of Prince Philip which I sketched about a year ago – showing him in some kind of discomfort during an official ceremony.

Good. Now the display shows both sides of the world we’re trying to create. The poor naked wretches and the burden of monarchy.

Oddly, both sides represent the Dispossessed.

Odder still, Lear has brought it on himself.

In rehearsals of the storm scenes, I confessed that I didn’t know what to do with ‘Blow winds’. I said, ‘Let’s take the reality. A man is shouting in a storm. You wouldn’t be able to hear him. He probably wouldn’t be able to hear himself. We’ve solved how to do it in performance – we’ll be using mics – but how do we rehearse? I can’t just stand here, yelling. I’ll strain my voice.’

Derek Jacobi as Lear

I mentioned the brilliant solution which Michael Grandage and Derek Jacobi found in their 2010 Donmar production. When you first saw Lear in the storm, you heard the full cacophony of it. But as he lifted his head to speak, all the sound was abruptly cut, and he whispered the speech: ‘Blow winds…’ It was, as Lear describes in his next scene, ‘The tempest in my mind’.

‘Couldn’t we borrow that?’ I suggested tentatively.

‘Absolutely not,’ said Greg; ‘Much too recent. And anyway, that was a chamber-piece production and that was a chamber-piece solution, and we’re not doing a chamber-piece.’

He then came up with his own, striking scenario for the scene. He suggested that maybe the winds aren’t blowing – yet – and the speech is a desperate plea (‘Blow winds, I beg you!’), not simply a description of what’s already happening (‘Yeah, go on winds, blow!’)…

…And so we created a narrative to the speech:

  • A subsidence in the storm prompts, ‘Blow winds…’
  • A flash of lightning prompts, ‘You sulphurous and thought-executing fires…’
  • A crash of thunder prompts, ‘And thou, all-shaking thunder…’

We can put these cues into rehearsals, we can create the other character in the scene – the storm – for me to play against.

Stage management made precise notes: they’ll find some recordings from stock (for now) to play when we next rehearse the scene.

For me this was, potentially, a solution to the hardest part of the role.

Olly as Edgar as Poor Tom

Then we moved onto the first Poor Tom scene. Oliver Johnstone [playing Edgar] really went for the mad tumble of language in his speeches. (It’s not just Beckett who owes a debt to Shakespeare, it’s James Joyce too.) I was also intrigued to note that Olly had a new range of movements – some of them twisted and jerky, almost like cerebral palsy – and new sounds too: mumblings and stutters. This was all from his ‘secret’ rehearsals with Greg. Which is a technique Greg used with the witches in Macbeth. He’d work with them privately, so that we, the rest of the cast, never knew what they were thinking or what motivated them. It made them more mysterious, more powerful.

I think, in fact, it’s originally a Mike Leigh method. I experienced it when I did his stage play Goose-Pimples (1980, Hampstead and Garrick). Each of the characters was developed separately, in one-to-ones with Mike, so that when he started to bring us together and create a storyline, we encountered one another as strangers. After all, in real life you know little or nothing about people you meet for the first time.

The Minimalist (Richard Wilson directing)

I remember that the long Goose-Pimples improvisations, and later the equally long Auschwitz exercises that Richard Wilson devised to rehearse Primo (2004, National Theatre and Broadway) can make your head go to a very funny place. I was angry with both Mike and Richard after the sessions – because of where they’d taken me – yet my anger was totally unjustified: I could’ve stopped at any point, and walked away. Except I couldn’t, really – it becomes a kind of self-hypnosis.

Today, I wondered how much Edgar loses himself in the Poor Tom disguise? But, of course, I wasn’t allowed to ask.

Olly had a question for me though, in the mock-trial scene: had Lear been planning this cross-examination for a while, ever since his daughters turned against him after the abdication?

‘That’s an interesting thought,’ I said; ‘There must’ve been people yesterday…’ (when the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq War was published) ‘…who’ve become obsessed with the idea that Tony Blair should be put on trial for… what’s it called?… humanity… what’s the phrase?’

Someone suggested, ‘Crimes against humanity?’

‘Exactly!’ I cried; ‘That’s what Lear has been obsessing about. Except in his case, it’s crimes against the king!’


This is an edited extract from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books.

Get your copy of the book for just £12.74 – that’s 25% off the RRP – by entering code SHER25 at checkout when you order via our website.

The RSC’s production of King Lear transfers to BAM, New York, from 7-29 April, before returning to Stratford-upon-Avon from 23 May – 9 June.

Illustrations by Antony Sher, photographed by Stewart Hemley. Author photo by Paul Stuart.

‘Leave me my name’: Richard Eyre on the importance of Arthur Miller

Richard Eyre directed the first Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. With several major productions of Miller’s work opening in this, his centenary year, it’s a time to reflect on why plays such as Death of a Salesman, A View from the Bridge and The Crucible speak so urgently to us today. Here, in an article written shortly after the playwright’s death in 2005 and reproduced in What Do I Know? People, Politics and the Arts, Eyre recalls Miller’s wit and humanity… and what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman.

A large part of my luck over the past twenty years was getting to know Arthur Miller, so when I heard in interviews—or was asked myself—the question ‘Will Arthur Miller be remembered as the man who married Marilyn Monroe?’ I felt a mixture of despair and indignation. The motives of the questioners—a mixture of prurience and envy—were, curiously enough, the same as the House Un-American Activities Committee when they summoned Arthur Miller to appear in front of their committee. I asked Arthur about it some years ago. ‘I knew perfectly well why they had subpoenaed me,’ he said, ‘it was because I was engaged to Marilyn Monroe. Had I not been, they’d never have thought of me. They’d been through the writers long before and they’d never touched me. Once I became famous as her possible husband, this was a great possibility for publicity. When I got to Washington, preparing to appear before that committee, my lawyer received a message from the chairman saying that if it could be arranged that he could have a picture, a photograph taken with Marilyn, he would cancel the whole hearing. I mean, the cynicism of this thing was so total, it was asphyxiating.’

The question that lurked then—and lurks now—is this: why would the world’s most attractive woman want to go out with a writer? There are at least four good reasons I can think of:

By 1956, when he married Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller had written four of the best plays in the English language, two of them indelible classics that will be performed in a hundred years’ time.

He was a figure of great moral and intellectual stature, who was unafraid of taking a stand on political issues and enduring obloquy for doing so.

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC's production opening this week. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Antony Sher rehearsing Death of a Salesman for the RSC’s current production. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

He was wonderful company—a great, a glorious, raconteur. I asked him once what happened on the first night of Death of a Salesman when it opened on the road in Philadelphia. He must have told the story a thousand times but he repeated it, pausing, seeming to search for half-buried details, as if it was the first time: ‘The play ended and there was a dead silence and I remember being in the back of the house with Kazan and nothing happened. The people didn’t get up either. Then one or two got up and picked up their coats. Some of them sat down again. It was chaos. Then somebody clapped and then the house fell apart and they kept applauding for God knows how long and… I remember an old man being helped up the aisle, who turned out to be Bernard Gimbel, who ran one of the biggest department-store chains in the United States who was literally unable really to navigate, they were helping him up the aisle. And it turned out that he had been swept away by the play and the next day he issued an order that no one in his stores—I don’t know, eight or ten stores all over the United States—was to be fired for being overage!’ And with this he laughed, a deep husky bass chortle, shaking his head as if the memory were as fresh as last week.

He was a deeply attractive man: tall, almost hulking, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, with the most beautiful large, strong but tender hands. There was nothing evasive or small-minded about him.

As he aged he became both more monumental but more approachable, his great body not so much bent as folded over. And if you were lucky enough to spend time with him and Inge Morath (the Magnum photographer to whom he was married for forty years after his divorce from Marilyn Monroe), you would be capsized by the warmth, wit and humanity of the pair of them.

It’s been surprising for me—and sometimes shocking—to discover that my high opinion of Arthur Miller was often not held by those who consider themselves the curators of American theatre. I read a discussion in the New York Times a few years ago between three theatre critics about the differences between British and American theatre:

first critic. Arthur Miller is celebrated there.

second critic. It’s Death of a Salesman, for crying out loud. He’s so cynical about American culture and American politics. The English love that.

first critic. Though Death of a Salesman was not a smash when it first opened in London.

third critic. It’s also his earnestness.

If we continue to admire Arthur Miller, it’s because we have the virtuous habit of treating his plays as contemporaneous and find that they speak to us today not because of their ‘earnestness’ but because they are serious—that’s to say they’re about something. They have energy and poetry and wit and an ambition to make theatre matter. What’s more, they use sinewy and passionate language with unembarrassed enthusiasm, which is always attractive to British actors and audiences weaned on Shakespeare.

In 1950, at a time when British theatre was toying with a phoney poetic drama—the plays of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry—there was real poetry on the American stage in the plays of Arthur Miller (and Tennessee Williams), or, to be exact, the poetry of reality: plays about life lived on the streets of Brooklyn and New Orleans by working-class people foundering on the edges of gentility and resonating with metaphors of the American Dream and the American Nightmare.

The Depression of the late twenties provided Arthur’s sentimental education: the family business was destroyed, and the family was reduced to relative poverty. I talked to him once about it as we walked in the shadow of the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge looking out over the East River. ‘America,’ he said, ‘was promises, and the Crash was a broken promise in the deepest sense. I think the Americans in general live on the edge of a cliff, they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. I don’t care who they are. It’s part of the vitality of the country, maybe. That they’re always working against this disaster that’s about to happen.’

He wrote with heat and heart and his work was felt in Britain like a distant and disturbing forest fire—a fire that did much to ignite British writers who followed, like John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker; and later Edward Bond, David Storey and Trevor Griffiths; and later still David Edgar, Mike Leigh, David Hare. What they found in Miller was a visceral power, an appeal to the senses beyond and below rational thought and an ambition to deal with big subjects.

A View from the Bridge: Phoebe Fox (Catherine), Mark Strong (Eddie) and Nicola Walker (Beatrice). Photo by Jan Versweyveld

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge, currently in the West End. Photo by Jan Versweyveld

His plays are about the difficulty and the possibility of people—usually men—taking control of their own lives, ‘that moment when, in my eyes, a man differentiates himself from every other man, that moment when out of a sky full of stars he fixes on one star.’ His heroes—salesmen, dockers, policemen, farmers—all seek a sort of salvation in asserting their singularity, their self, their ‘name’. They redeem their dignity, even if it’s by suicide. Willy Loman cries out ‘I am not a dime a dozen, I am Willy Loman…!’, Eddie Carbone in A View from the Bridge, broken and destroyed by sexual guilt and public shame, bellows: ‘I want my name’, and John Proctor in The Crucible, in refusing the calumny of condemning his fellow citizens, declaims ‘How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!’ In nothing does Miller show his Americanism more than in the assertion of the right and necessity of the individual to own his own life—and, beyond that, how you reconcile the individual with society. In short, how you live your life.

If there was a touch of the evangelist in his writing, his message was this: there is such a thing as society, and art ought to be used to change it. Though it’s hard to argue that art saves lives, feeds the hungry or sways votes, Death of a Salesman comes as close as any writer can get to art as a balm for social concern. When I saw the New York revival five or six years ago [the 1999 Broadway revival starring Brian Dennehy], I came out of the theatre behind a young girl and her dad, and she said to him ‘It was like looking at the Grand Canyon.’

A few years ago I directed the first production of The Crucible on Broadway since its opening nearly fifty years previously [Eyre’s production opened at the Virginia Theatre on 7 March 2002]. He loved our production and was closely involved with rehearsals. I never got over the joy and pride of sitting beside Arthur as this great play unfolded in front of us while he beamed and muttered: ‘It’s damned good stuff, this.’ We performed it shortly after the Patriot Act had been introduced. Everyone who saw it said it was ‘timely’. What did they mean exactly? That it was timeless.

‘There are things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth,’ is what Huckleberry Finn said of the author of Tom Sawyer. And the same could be said of Arthur Miller, which is perhaps why it’s not a coincidence that my enthusiasm for his writing came at the same time as my discovery of the genius of Mark Twain. And it’s not a surprise that what Arthur Miller said of Mark Twain could just has well have been said about him:

‘He somehow managed—despite a steady underlying seriousness which few writers have matched—to step round the pit of self-importance and to keep his membership of the ordinary human race in the front of his mind and his writing.’


This article is published in What Do I Know? People Politics and the Arts by Richard Eyre, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy your copy at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – click here.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by John Haynes.

Antony Sher appears as Willy Loman in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Death of a Salesman. His book, Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries, is published by Nick Hern Books on 30 April 2015 – to buy your copy at a 20% discount, click here.