Now is the winter…

Antony Sher in RICHARD III at the Barbican Theatre, London
Photo: Alamy

When 35-year-old Anthony Sher took on the role of Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984, two years after playing the Fool to Michael Gambon’s King Lear, he delivered a transformative performance. Using crutches to evoke a spider-like figure, Sher crafted a grotesque portrayal of Richard that was as captivating as it was terrifying—a spellbinding portrayal that stunned audiences and earned him the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor. In 1985, Sher shed light on the gruelling preparations with Year of the King, a remarkable book in which his diary traces the year leading up to the play’s premiere. The following entry details that momentous opening night.

The Diary Entry

Tuesday 19 June

I wake with that feeling, that sickening feeling. It only lasts as long as I lie in bed. There are still the last cartoons to be drawn. Sadly, I run out of time and fail to do ones for Alison Sutcliffe, Charles and the rest of stage-management.

The day is warm and thick like treacle. ‘Twill be a storm…

Entering the stage door, the first signs of hysteria. Flowers, cards, presents already piling up. A carnation from David Troughton with a card written as Bouton to Molicre—’Master, have a glorious summer’—starts me crying again.

Rehearsal on stage with the coronation cloaks. Apparently, on several previews the naked hump (or ‘The Money’ as Bill D. has taken to calling it, because of Tucker’s astronomical bill) hasn’t been fully revealed when Buckingham disrobes Richard. Endless suggestions—change the fur to silk so it will slide off better, weights in the hood to drag it down. After an hour of rehearsing this, Mal says he’s now more nervous about this responsibility than playing Buckingham.

The whole day feels like someone has their finger on the fast-forward button. Dashing into town to buy booze for tonight’s party and presents, dashing back for the afternoon call, the stage door now looking like a florist’s and greeting-card shop.

2.00 P.M. Conference Hall. The cast in a circle. Bill asks us to speak the play quietly, stopping one another if there’s a word or phrase we can’t understand. Very useful to hear the story again. Atmosphere sober. Blessed bubbling and twinkling as always, but I resist the temptation. Important for this exercise not to disintegrate into corpsing. Hope my whispering seriousness is not misinterpreted as nerves, which I don’t feel yet.

4.30 p.m. On stage with Ciss. All of us standing in a circle (‘A circle is always aggressive,’ she says, ‘use it to get rid of tension’), humming, rocking, chest-patting. Words from the play exchanged across the circle. Animal words, religious words. The atmosphere very similar to the end of the play—an army gearing themselves up.

5.00 p.m. Now the two-hour wait. No sickening nerves yet. Maybe they won’t come this time.

Jim’s first night present is beautiful—a huge joke-shop spider in a rather elegant Victorian perfume bottle.

Massage. Doze off to Don Giovanni.

THE OPENING NIGHT 6.00 p.m. Cold shower. Muttering ‘Now is the winter …’

6.15 p.m. Mac arrives, relaxed and chatty, bearing piles of cards from downstairs. The heat of the evening is intense. As he advances with the hump I say, ‘I don’t think I can bear wearing that tonight, Mac.’ He says, ‘Righto mate, I’ll go and tell them Richard’s got better.’ Phone rings. Bill, sounding stiff and formal: ‘Just want to say have a good one.’

6.40 p.m. Fight rehearsal in the Conference Hall. The tension backstage relatively low. ‘Good luck, good luck’ is the constant greeting as people pass one another. Some of my cartoons have been opened and are being passed round, making people laugh.

6.45 p.m. Dressing-room. ‘Give me ten minutes alone, Mac.’ Strolling around doing ‘Now is the winter . . .’ Oddly calm.

6.55 p.m. Beginners’ call over the tannoy. Look at myself in the mirror and say aloud, ‘Right, let’s go and play Richard the Third.’

6.57 p.m. Waiting in the wings with Allam, Paul Gregory, Jonathan Scott-Taylor and Guy Fithen. We peer at the audience through the tracery walls of the set.

‘Come on, you buggers, get into your seats.’

‘Look, the critics are writing already.’

‘Tony, when your crutches first appear, expect a cacophony of scribbling.’

7.00 p.m. Graham Sawyer arrives from front-of-house to give the final clearance. Philip mutters into his mouthpiece ‘Going’, and the house lights start to dim. The music crashes and I scurry on stage. Get into position and feel the lights change. Open my eyes.

“Now is the winter …”

The first thing that strikes me is that the audience might be in more of a state than I am. Waves of tension that you can reach out and touch. How stupid first nights are! The frosty passivity of the critics (‘We’re not actually here, we’re just observing’) mixed with the nervous supportiveness of friends, relations and theatre staff. It’s like playing to a dozen audiences at once. The laughter is muted and only starts about a third of the way back, behind the scribbling heads. A feeling that there might be some real people, ordinary members of the public, out there somewhere.

I underplay moments, overplay others, in an attempt to reach this totally untypical jumble of spectators. I dry briefly in the Lady Anne scene and have to do one of my Shakespearian rewrites. Later in the same scene I’m horrified to hear my line ‘I’ll have her’ come out as ‘Oil ‘av’er!’ Still, there is an exit round, albeit rather token.

Better from here on in. Realising that I’m expending too much energy in trying to sort this lot out, I calm down to the point of indifference. Whenever I go backstage, worried faces loom out of the dark to whisper, ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Extremely well,’ I keep replying and take a perverse delight in their expressions of surprise. Know they’re thinking, ‘Well, he’s not getting the laughs he got at the previews.’

At the coronation the big moment comes—Mal comes to disrobe me. We share a smile and I whisper, ‘Your big chance Mal, go for The Money.’ Don’t know whether he managed it or not. Forget to ask afterwards.

The second half is much better. The audience appears to have decided it’s not at all bad. They’re more relaxed and confident and therefore so am I. Who’s in charge here?

My voice lasts well and, thank God, I’ve got some big guns left for the oration. But no breakthrough on the nightmare speech.

Curtain call. The applause is disappointing, but I’m told there were some bravos and we are called back for another one. Blessed, Mal and I yell to one another over the applause, ‘Well, you’re on yer holidays!’ Glimpse the scribblers scurrying up the aisles, dashing to their deadlines. Wonder how they find enough telephones?

Great relief backstage. People surround me, hugging and patting, Blessed sweetly saying, ‘ ‘Kin marvellous performance, inspiration to us all, great triumph.’

In the dressing-room, a race to get out of the drenched deformity and into the shower before people start arriving.

Standing naked under a stream of water, shampoo, soap, stage blood, running mascara—the most beautiful feeling. I survived.

A knock on the door and, through the rushing water, a familiar hoarse voice: ‘Tone, where are yer?’ Gambon!

Lots of other faces from the old Company: Chris Hunter, Monica McCabe, Ludo Keston, Dusty Hughes. How wonderful that they should have come all this way.

Now the dressing-room full of RSC hierarchy. Suddenly Trevor Nunn pushes his way through and ‘Trevs’ me. I’ve heard a lot about this ‘Trevving’, but never had it done to me. From what I’d heard, a ‘Trev’ is an arm round your shoulder and a sideways squeeze. But this ‘Trev’ is a full frontal hug, so complete and so intimate that the dressing-room instantly clears, as if by suction. I’m left alone in the arms of this famous man wondering whether it’s polite to let go.

He says, ‘When this show moves to London there are going to be queues round the block. It’s going to be one of those.’

A flash of a night in Joe Allen’s some millennia ago.

At last alone. Step outside on to the little balcony, gasp at the fresh air. The storm never happened. It’s a gloriously warm, almost Mediterranean night.

At The Duck, Pam whispers that the word is good and nods towards a table where they sit: Billington, Coveney, Tinker and others. These crazy evenings in The Duck after an opening night, when we all pretend we don’t know one another – us and them. I miss James Fenton because he used to cross no man’s land and offer you a drink.

Mal and I sit with Gambon and his companion, Lyn. Try and recapture the patter of two years ago, but there is something melancholy in the air. Beginning the descent. Gambon starts to talk about how strange it was driving into Stratford tonight, and his eyes fill.

We go to the party. It has been arranged by Steve, Jonathan, Guy and Hep. They have floodlit the garden of their digs. There is a barbeque and a Richard III cake to cut. Something which has happened, invisibly, over the last couple of weeks is that the Company has cemented together round this show. The cynicism and indifference are gone. There is a new enthusiasm for the work. I think that’s one of this production’s triumphs.

The only wet blanket this evening seems to be me, sitting alone at the back of the garden, forcing myself to eat although I still have no appetite. The exhaustion is massive, preventing me from having even one wild night of celebration.

Eventually find Bill. He has slumped alone in the living-room. Looking as wrecked as I feel. We smile at one another. Nothing left to say.

Later, I’m glad to have the opportunity to tell Gambon that at last I understand why he felt so disparaging about his great performance as Lear. At the time his behaviour seemed like destructive modesty. But Shakespeare’s great parts are humiliating to play, or at least, humbling. You get to meet his genius face to face.

Leave the party early. Have to do it all again tomorrow and then again on Thursday.

Walking through Stratford on this warm, clear night. Not a soul about, just the beautiful timbered buildings, which often you can’t see for the crowds. Late at night, this place looks like any quiet country town.

Jim and Lyn fall behind as Gambon and I stroll along Waterside saying very little. It means a great deal to me to have him here tonight. Lear and Fool. Where this chapter of my life began.

Further Reading

Year of the King is a special book, filled with insightful reflections from one of the greatest actors ever to have taken to the stage. It also contains many of Sher’s illustrations from throughout the year, which only add to the book’s impact. A compulsive read.

On the website of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, you can find many photographs from RSC performances over the years, including this one from Sher’s opening night as Richard III, as described in the above entry.

Sir Anthony Sher died in 2021 after an incredible career. Some obituaries: New York Times, Guardian, BBC, Royal Shakespeare Company.

Diary entry taken from Year of the King. Copyright © 1985 Antony Sher. Excerpted by arrangement with Nick Hern Books.

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