QotW (#71): 11 March 2019

Antony Sher as Richard, RSC, 1984
the ‘bottled spider’

It’s nearly a year (where has the time gone?) since I last picked up a book and decided I’d love to get down the pub for a session with the author (and bear in mind I’m still not drinking: day 70 today).  Imagine me, Anthony Sher and Michael Bogadanov setting the Shakespearean world to rights over a few scoops …

Ever had one of those fabled moments of epiphany when you suddenly become aware that you are actually being paid to do the thing you most want to be doing?  Rarer than hen’s teeth, unicorn’s eggs, or indeed First Folios, yet strangely endemic to every bastard else, if you believe their social media feeds?

Teaching Shakespeare at A Level is the closest I get to that feeling.  Just now and then I become hyper-lucid, conscious of how I’ve spent the previous few minutes; a fleeting gap appears in the dreadful clouds of anhedonia [1] that permanently  ‘lour upon my house’, and I feel, well … joy …

Let’s get a little purple, for a moment. 

My KS5 marking is coloured according to OCR’s Assessment Objectives (AO), and purple’s the colour I use for AO5:  ‘explore literary texts informed by different interpretations.’

This is broad: different interpretations can be affected by time, place, culture, gender, social class, you name it.  Some students find it daunting, but in many ways it ought to be liberating and fun, not least because there are so many film versions of the play which can be interrogated by the students.  Each is an interpretation, which I often liken to a cover version of a classic song.  Each cover version is a product of a deliberate decision-making process.  This what, why, how, is what we can discuss for AO5.

Important note:  some cover versions are better than other.  If anyone has an idea what the hell Sheryl Crow was thinking when she mutilated ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine‘, please get in touch …

Back to Richard.  This isn’t my quote of the week, but it leads me to Antony Sher:

Actors and directors can choose either to magnify or minimise Richard’s hump. Does the “deformity” lie chiefly in the body, or the mind? Antony Sher made the “spider” a sinister reality. Ian McKellen’s stiff-limbed but strapping fascist despot focused on the mental scars. [a]

How, then, and why, did Sher decide to adopt ‘the spider’? We come to page 138, opened at random (-ish: the diary entry is on my birthday) to get a flavour of the book and Sher’s style.  I felt a little validated, reading the passage: so often I ask students to imagine the conversations and processes that result in a particular cover version.

Sunday 1 April

Still battling out Richard ideas with him. [Dickie, aka Richard Wilson]  He questions me carefully. ‘If he has crutches, why does no-one mention them in the text?’

‘They do.  They keep referring to him as various four-legged creatures.’

‘Hmmmm.’ He talks again about how my work is straying away from the kind of acting that he respects (stillness, truth, openness) towards tricksy swagger.  He urges me to see Richard as crippled inside, to minimalise the deformity. ‘You don’t have to think of yourself as just a physical actor, you know.  You do have other qualities.’

‘But in the text, in Richard’s first speech, he says that he is “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time in to this breathing world scarce half made up.”  He’s not talking about flat feet, he’s talking about something massive.  Why should it be such a hang-up otherwise? [b]


[1] Sir Terry Pratchett (GNU), Guards!  Guards! (Transworld, 1989) contains the best description of anhedonia I’ve come across – search for ‘knurd’ in the text, and see what Sgt Colon has to say about Sam Vimes

[a] Boyd Tonkin, ‘Richard III: Celebrating the most deliciously wicked study of political ambition and intrigue‘, The Independent, 22 March 2016

[b] Antony Sher, Year of the King, (Nick Heron Books:  London, 2004)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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