Two titans of the theatre

I’ve been having a wonderful time this month with Reading the Theatre. I’ve read fiction, nonfiction, and plays … often one thing leads to another, as seeing a play or film based on a play makes me want to know more about the actor, and reading an actor’s account of his performance makes me want to see the play!

Fortunately there are some cases where this is possible, thanks to films that help to preserve great performances for posterity. The film of the musical My Fair Lady, for example, is a classic that many of you may have seen. You might not know much about the star, Rex Harrison — but The Incomparable Rex by Patrick Garland will let you in behind the scenes.

What you will find there is not very pretty, I’m afraid. Garland, who directed Harrison in the American revival of the musical in the mid-seventies, seems to see reminiscing about the production as a fine opportunity to collect his memories of the man he considered a friend as well as a great artist, and perhaps to demonstrate why he remained so attractive to many in spite of his irascibility. But much of Harrison’s in-person charm is lost when we are confronted with his bald words upon the page, divorced from his finely modulated voice and manners. He comes across as insensitive, boorish, and even cruel.

Garland feels that he even doomed the revival production because when his co-star playing Eliza became overwhelmed by the vocal demands of the score, he refused to allow an understudy to take over. When forced by the crisis to do so, he played so coldly to her that she ended up prostrate in her dressing room after the preview performance attended by the New York critics. I suspect that he feared being upstaged by any talent that might have proved a match for his own, and used these antics to keep other actors in their place.

I’m sure such attitudes and practices are not uncommon among stage folk, and so Garland’s record allows us to see a side of show business that is not at all glamorous. But it left me sad, and wondering why Harrison became such a dreadful person — a question not addressed in this particular book.

Fortunately all actors are not so self-centered, as demonstrated by Antony Sher’s Year of the Mad King. This is an actor’s diary of his own experiences preparing to take on the Everest of acting, King Lear, with the Royal Shakespeare Company — and while a certain degree of ego is naturally necessary to conquer such a role, it’s softened by Sher’s obvious gratitude and appreciation for other people in his life.

The year takes Sher through some difficult personal milestones, including the death of his sister, watching other friends and family members succumbing to illness and mortality, and confronting the limitations of his own aging body There are also joyful moments, like the conversion of his civil partnership to Gregory Doran to marriage (now possible due to recent changes in the law). Even though they’ve effectively been married for years, the marking of this milestone in civil rights as well as their personal lives is a poignant one.

Doran is Sher’s director in the play, too, and their interactions show again how he is able to quell his ego for the good of the production. At times he wants to bring in some pet scheme or way of playing the role, which could become a source of domestic disharmony and not just an issue in the theatre. I was impressed by how these two gifted artists managed to make their partnership work in both venues — not at all an easy feat.

Fellow actors and those responsible for the staging of Lear are also given due credit, and it is fascinating to see how the production slowly begins to come together. After reading about the process of interpretation and all the artistic choices that were made, I was so curious to see the results — and I was very happy to find I could rent the play through Digital Theatre. I feared I would be confused or bored — the play has the reputation of being unplayable, after all — but the shape of the drama was crystal clear and there was no dull moment.

The idea was to portray the descent of Lear from a godlike status (symbolized by his entrance raised high above everyone else’s heads and covered with fur and gold jewelry), through the betrayal that leads to his collapse into madness in the storm scene, to being merely human at the end, cradling Cordelia in his arms. There are terrible incidents like the wounding of Gloucester, and tender moments of reconciliation and love. Shakespeare really takes us through the gamut of human emotion in this play; it would have been incredibly powerful to experience in person, but I’m glad I got to see it in some form.

Several other RSC productions are available on Digital Theatre, including Sher’s performance as Falstaff in the King Henry IV plays (subject of another book, Year of the Fat Knight), and Paapa Essiedu (an outstanding Edmund) as Hamlet — so I may have some more watching to do.

Antony Sher as King Lear, Nia Gwynne as Goneril, Natalie Simpson as Cordelia, and Kelly Williams as Regan
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5 thoughts on “Two titans of the theatre

  1. I wanted to meet Antony Sher after reading „The Year of the Fat Knight“ (and „Woza Shakespeare“) … that isn‘t always the case when I read a celebrity‘s memoirs or other pieces of autobiographical writing. But Sher comes across as someone who you’d be able to talk „substance“ with, on quite a range of topics, without their ego getting in the way.

    Re: Rex Harrison, as a teenager I read the memoirs of German actress Lili Palmer (English title: „Change Lobsters and Dance“), who was Harrison‘s wife when „My Fair Lady“ was filmed … and I was instantly cured of any bouts of star-struck-ness. Even without washing any dirty linens in public — and even though Palmer actually goes to some length to credit his talent, the things she learned from him (not least about showbiz), etc. — it‘s clear that he was *not* a universally nice person and it took a considerable amount of strength to be able to stand up to him.

    1. I totally agree. I would stay far away from Harrison but would love to meet Sher. I think I was led to his book by a comment of yours at Calmgove, so thank you!

      1. I‘d love to take that credit, but it was someone else who first mentioned „The Year of Lear“. I just tagged on with „The Year of the Fat Knight“ … 🙂

        Anyway, yes, he sounds like an overall great person — and „The Year of Lear“, which of course had been sitting on my TBR in turn, just moved a few rungs higher! 😀

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