Book Review: Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries By Anthony Sher  

Published by Nick Hern Books

Actor Anthony Sher rose to prominence in 1984 after playing Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His performance won him the Laurence Olivier award that year, and he has since gone on to play lead roles in Macbeth, Tamburlaine and Stanley, the latter earning also earning an Olivier.

Sher’s experiences playing the role were documented in Year of the King. Published in 1984, the book has gone on to become one of the classics of theatre writing giving insight into the demands of becoming one of Shakespeare’s most extreme characters. The cover of the paperback edition shows an illustration of Richard; hunched over, almost spiderlike, scurrying across the stage. A caricature wonderfully elaborating the homemade crutches that Sher used, making him such a villainous King. It is worth digging out the grainy YouTube footage of Sher’s performance to share with your students, it is spellbinding.

Over thirty years late and In March this year, Sher published Year of the Mad King, another personal insight into playing another of Shakespeare’s challenging roles, this time King Lear. The book is again in diary form so the insight is deep and personal. The first entry has Sher awake early, “wearing my dressing gown, my eyes still sleepy, my hair a tangle of thin strands.” He is holding a version of the Lear script, and while the production is not for some time, “I’ll need to start learning the lines quite soon.”

And so begins the year in the life an actor, an extremely passionate actor who, as we learn, is both excited and daunted by the prospect of playing such a part, and like the previous book it includes his sketches and drawings of other actors, close friends and also self-portraits, adding to the tone of the journey.

Like Year of the King, this is a fascinating look into the mind of an extraordinarily talented man attempting to step into one of Shakespeare’s most extraordinary characters. It can be read both as an auto-biography, offering glimpses into the day-to-day of a professional actor, but also as a manual for other on how to research, rehearse and ultimately perform complex characters.

Excitingly, King Lear is set for a small reprise from May to June, with Sher again playing the lead role. I imagine tickets are like gold dust but if you can get hold of some then I highly recommend reading this book before you go.

Essential reading!

Review by Mark Glover