THE publication of actor Antony Sher’s most recent book, Year of the Mad King, on the Ides of March this year, was timed to precede revival of the production of King Lear by his partner, Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Greg Doran, in which he starred, in New York and at Stratford-upon-Avon, and I trust the excellent theatrical publisher Nick Hern sold a good few copies at both venues. I only picked it up during a week of relaxation following the Edinburgh Festival, however, and I wonder if I would have found it quite so remarkably resonant six months earlier.

For Lear, to remind anyone who hasn’t seen it in a while, or skipped those classes, everything goes to hell in a handcart – pretty much through nobody’s fault but his own, but not without the natural world seeming to join the rush to judgement, and the occasional malevolent human chipping in as well. It is, as Sher puts it, a theatrical Everest for an actor, and like his earlier books about playing Richard III (Year of the King) and Falstaff (Year of the Fat Knight), the South African’s diary of the making of the role and the production is a compelling piece of work, and pretty much impossible to leave to one side until you have reached the end of the story and the curtain goes up. Of course there are a few paragraphs that Private Eye magazine could extract for ridicule under the label “luvvie”or “pseud”, but if you want to believe that creating a powerful work of theatre is without serious hard graft, physically, intellectually and emotionally, you are probably unlikely to have picked up the book in the first place (or found this column, come to that).

But it is the timing of the writing of the book and the background of events in the wider world to the process of making the show that is so striking now. As I cannot think of any dimension in which the world has improved over the last half year, the going-to-hell-in-a-handcart-ness that parallels the play becomes even more pronounced with each extra month’s distance. Sher’s diary runs from the end of May 2015 to September 1 2016, and encompasses incredulity at the very possibility of a Donald Trump candidature in the US to the equally hard to believe result of the Brexit referendum. It takes in the appalling terrorist attack on the Bataclan in Paris and then those in Nice and Munich.

Sher also has more personal griefs to address during the course of his research and line-learning for the demanding part of Lear with the deaths, after protracted illnesses, of both his sister and sister-in-law. It is a considerable tribute to his skill as a writer that he manages to relate all of this, within the context of a narrative about preparing to strut on the stage, without at any point seeming either maudlin or tasteless. So I hope I won’t either, if I say that the reader cannot help but come away gobsmacked anew at the profundity of the work of William Shakespeare, over four centuries after it was written – because that is what Sher surely intends by the book.

Doran’s production mixed ancient and modern ingredients, but contemporary resonances included the ubiquitous presence of the homeless (a detail precisely sourced from the text) and, less the modern metaphor be missed, an actual handcart for King Lear (and his dead Cordelia) to go to hell aboard. But I doubt that anyone involved in the creation of the RSC’s most recent Lear would have garlanded it with that pretentious description of journalism as “the first draft of history”. Sher’s diary, however, turns out to be – somewhat frighteningly – exactly that.

Year of the Mad King by Antony Sher, Nick Hern Books, £16.99