Dialogue is like food: you hold it in your mouth, you taste it. And learning the part of Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II was like munching on a rich pudding
“How do you learn all those lines?”
This question is the one that the public most frequently ask of actors. We laugh about it, laugh at them for being so shallow – as though learning lines was the great mystery in acting.
Henry IV Parts I and II review – Antony Sher’s magnificent, magnetic Falstaff
Royal Shakespeare theatre, Straford-upon-Avon
These plays embrace the whole range of human experience and the RSC’s production is rich in psychological insight
Well, I’ve stopped laughing. It’s an age thing. In recent years, I’ve started doing something which I’d have disapproved of before: learning all the lines before rehearsals begin. It’s the only way now. How, as a younger actor – as one of the Dirty Duckers in Stratford in 82, partying all night, rehearsing all day, performing in the evening – how I found time to learn lines as well, I’ve absolutely no idea.
When you’re young, it seems so straightforward: you learn the lines and that’s that. But when you’re older, you’re aware of a series of tests and obstacles ahead, each of which will put pressure on you, and the lines will often be the first casualty. So…
You have to know them alone in your room.
You have to know them when you speak them aloud with the other actors.
You have to know them when the ante is upped in the rehearsal room (such as a run-through).
You have to know them in front of the first audience at the first preview.
You have to know them in front of the critics.
You have to know them on a wet Wednesday matinee three months later, when the house is thin and you’re thinking about the shopping…
This morning, I carefully put out the things I’d need. This is in my painting studio in our London house, a rear basement room with a conservatory glass roof. I set my drawing board at an angle to the wall, and prop the script on it. I’ll learn from our A4 version, but on the shelf at my side are two published editions – the RSC and the Arden – for reference.
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“A Fat Knight?” Photograph: Illustration by Antony Sher
And it’s those published editions that are the most intimidating, those smart, scholarly paperbacks – two pairs for the two plays: I have to transfer rather a lot of the material from inside them to inside my brain.
How? Today, I’m like the most naive member of the public. How will you learn all those lines?
I begin with the first Falstaff/Hal scene (Act One, Scene Two). I say Falstaff’s first line: “Now Hal, what time of day is it, lad?” I say it again, and again, pacing round. I move on to his next line – “Indeed, you come near me now, Hal…” – and I practise that. Then I try the two lines together – but I’ve already forgotten the first. I start again. And so – the process is under way.
To an actor, dialogue is like food. You hold it in your mouth, you taste it. If it’s good dialogue the taste will be distinctive. If it’s Shakespeare dialogue, the taste will be Michelin-starred. Falstaff’s dialogue is immediately delicious: you’re munching on a very rich pudding indeed, savoury rather than sweet, probably not good for your health, but irresistible.
If you’re learning lines before rehearsals, you have to learn in neutral, in a way that won’t cut off the creative choices that will happen when the director and other actors are involved. So I’m speaking Falstaff in my own voice, I’m not attempting any characterisation.
At the same time, I can’t help noticing things about the man, and becoming drawn to certain ones. He’s well-educated, I see (he knows about Phoebus, Diana, similes and iteration), and he’s a thief, a highwayman. A gentleman rogue then? That breed of privileged, public-school Englishmen, who can be both monstrous and charming, both powerful and self-destructive. The kind that believe the world belongs to them. They can break the law – it’s only a bit of fun. They can drink themselves senseless – it’s what we chaps do. And they’d be totally at ease hanging out with the future King – I’ll teach him a thing or two. This country is full of men like that. Maybe that’s why Falstaff is so loved – he’s so familiar.
When I finish the session, I realise I’ve been at it for three hours. God. Time flying like when I’m writing or painting. But this is acting. Which I love less. It’s too much like hard and boring graft: doing a run of eight shows a week is a conveyor-belt job. Anyway, today’s work was pure pleasure.
This is an extract from Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries by Antony Sher, published by Nick Hern Books. Year of the Fat Knight is BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week.
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