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Book Report: Year of the King

When I was thinking about auditioning for R3, I knew I would want to read Year of the King, Antony Sher’s Diary and Sketchbook about his preparation for playing Richard III. I have read one other of his diaries, and enjoyed it tremendously. He has a nice touch with anecdotes and name-dropping; enough to give you a sense of traveling in heady circles (—then you had better crawl, hadn’t you?—said Michael Gambon) but not so much to exclude you. And he makes himself the butt of the joke, usually.

Anyway, I failed to get hold of a copy by the auditions, but eventually my ILL librarian turned it up for me. And it’s a marvelous book, really enjoyable. And it occurred to me, as I read it, that that is what I thought I wanted to be when I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be paid a salary by the Royal Shakespeare Company or some similar repertory company, get leading parts in fantastic plays and spend months working with wonderful people on all aspects of putting on a complex play. And there are, presumably, people who have lives like that, the bastards. What I failed to understand is that not only to most people who attempt to make a living acting on stage fail to do so, almost all of those people who do manage to make a living at it are going to spend most of their time either in long-running shows doing the same role eight times a week, with very little creativity involved once the show is formed, or else very quickly ginning up a role in a slapdash way. And I envy those people, too, of course, although I am unwilling to pay the cost in auditions, misery, ill-treatment, low pay and time away from my family. No, when I imagine myself as a professional actor, I imagine myself as a Star, I’m afraid, going from playing the Fool and Tartuffe to playing Richard III.

Anyway, it was startling, in a way, to recognize my youthful dreams in that book, although I had never read it. I am just, really, adjusting to the idea of myself as a community theater guy. I had adjusted to the idea of myself as not being an actor, but I hadn’t adjusted to the idea of my being an amateur actor. And a lot of the stuff he talks about? Just isn’t in the world of amateur acting.

OK, I’ll pass along one story, or at least a version of it. They had decided not only to have the coronation on-stage but to have the King and Queen stripped to the waist for it. We see them from behind, you understand. And there’s Anne, perfect and pretty and sexy. And there’s Richard’s hideous deformity.

Well, naturally if you are showing the hump onstage, out there under the lights, you can’t just use Lord Larry’s old one, you are going to need something new and designed to look realistic. And so they budget to have Christopher Tucker, the movie makeup artist (Company of Wolves, Mr. Creosote, Elephant Man, original stage Webber-Phantom), do up a fancy hump. Mr. Sher, who has a very visual imagination, wants to have the hump be in the center, a huge build-up of flesh that would remind the audience of a bull and lend emphasis to his nearly-useless little legs. The idea, aside from it just being a great visual, is that we would get a sense of tremendous upper-body strength overcompensating for lameness; Richard is simultaneously vulnerable and imposing.

Well, in they go to Mr. Tucker’s studio, where there are werewolves lying about in various stages of completion, and he immediately asks if the hump will be on the left or the right. No, the center, he is told. That’s not right, he says, humps are on one side. Well, this is true for scoliosis, but not for kyphosis, and anyway they are looking for this kind of impression, and so on and so forth.

Well, and nobody seems very happy about the discussion, but they agree to keep working, and the cast is made for Mr. Sher’s back, and so on and so forth over weeks and weeks, and meanwhile the costume people are very upset. You see, in a show like this, it’s best if you can make the lead’s costume first, so you can make sure that everybody else’s costume works with it. But they can’t make the costume, really, without the hump. So they are waiting, and doing the other costumes, and waiting, and so on, and finally, we are about a week before opening, and the final fitting happens and the hump is ready, a really disgusting lump of putty-like substance that will look absolutely hideous when he is stripped for the coronation.

And under the costume, it barely makes a ripple.

This, I think you will agree, is the kind of situation that calls for freaking out, and Mr. Sher is freaking the fuck out. Here’s this hideously expensive bit of stage magic for in between Four, one and Four, two, and it’s going to make him look like an idiot for all of Acts One, Two and Three. So the director comes around to the costume shop to look, and yes, we are all in agreement that this Will Not Do. So he takes the second version of it (if you have the money, it’s best to have two of any costume piece, just in case) and shoves it on over the top of the other one, and pulls up the back and starts shoving stuff in between, bits of fabric, some foam rubber, some batting he found lying around, and there. Now you look like Richard.

Meanwhile, with all the money from the budget going to the Hump, they wind up with a Hasting’s Head that looks like utter crap. But that’s all right. Nobody expects Hasting’s Head to look good, and honestly, when you have Brian Blessed playing Hastings, there is just no way for artifice to catch up.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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