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Antony Sher: 'I discovered I could be other people' | reviews, news & interviews

Antony Sher: 'I discovered I could be other people'

Antony Sher: 'I discovered I could be other people'

Remembering the brilliant actor knight who revealed himself both on stage and in pioneering performance diaries

'I always felt like a better actor when the roles related to me personally': Antony Sher as King Lear in 2016

The energy of Antony Sher, who has died at the age of 72, was prodigious. He not only acted like a fizzing firecracker. He wrote books about his most celebrated roles, and several novels set in his native South Africa.

He also wrote plays, and he painted. It was as if the stage could not contain him. The screen certainly couldn’t: Sher's acting style was so volatile, so expansive, so technically adapted for the theatrical space that aside from his well-remembered turn as Howard Kirk (pictured below), the voraciously heterosexual lecturer in Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1981), his performances on film are a mere footnote to a towering theatre CV.

From the first he was always an actor apart, and he was often at his most consistently thrilling when he was in the undisputed lead role. In perhaps his deepest and quietest performance, he brought Primo Levi to the stage in his own one-man play. Of other real figures he portrayed, he was a sexually tortured Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems’s play Stanley, and a roaring Edmund Kean at the Old Vic. He once told me the story of how he ended up as the lead role in I.D. (2003), the play he wrote for the Almeida about the assassination of South Africa’s first prime minister. The director Nancy Meckler suggested the writer sit mutely in a corner where, for the first time in his professional life, he would watch. “Which I got to enjoy very much,” he said, sounding surprised – even delighted – at the memory of ceding the floor to others. “And I was not going to be in the play. We offered this to a shortlist of actors that we wanted to play that part and they couldn’t do it. I was rather sad the day we decided it’s silly, I might as well do it.” He ended up onstage for almost the entire duration of the play.

Sher’s last totemic performance for the RSC (and the subject of his final book) was in King Lear in 2016, when he convincingly played a mighty potentate whose mind is horrifically fractured by the onset of dementia. It was fascinating to watch him graduate to this crowning role. More than 30 years earlier, while at university, I saw the young Daniel Day Lewis interviewed in front of a roomful of students. I don’t remember the context in which this came up, but I firmly recall him quoting Michael Gambon’s advice to actors: “When playing Lear, make sure you aren’t upstaged by your Fool.” Gambon had recently played Lear for the RSC. His capering, sinuous, red-nosed Fool was Sher.Antony Sher The History ManThe sense that he wasn’t always collegiate onstage became part of the Sher’s reputation and it irked him. I once interviewed an actress who was appearing alongside him in a new play at the National. “He’s probably quite a competitive actor,” she mused, perhaps a little naively. When this thought bubble got published there was all hell to pay in the rehearsal room.

I interviewed Sher three times across a decade and found him a fascinating mix of diffident and forthcoming. Anointed a star when he played Richard III on crutches in the manner of a bottled arachnid spitting venom and rage, he was first known for pyrotechnics which shielded deeper energies. But these were unveiled as, across the years, he peeled away the layers of his identity in search of truth and authenticity.

Antony Sher was born in Cape Town in 1949. He was of Lithuanian Jewish stock, from a family with not an artistic cell in its DNA. He first knew he was homosexual at four, the same age he started painting. In the shadow of Table Mountain, those two preferences practically amounted to the same thing. He later expressed a hint of envy at his birthplace’s mutation into what he called “the San Francisco of Africa. It's so gay it’s unbelievable.” He was a reticent child, and was sent to elocution class (nobody dared call it acting class) “to draw me out of myself. I was so withdrawn everyone was starting to get worried that they had this peculiar person on their hands.” By the time he was 18, his parents were researching drama courses in London.

"They found that Central School was the top school at the time and naively they found digs for me at Swiss Cottage before we left and then we did the audition and it was all over in 10 minutes. They had different grades of letters. Mine was the worst you could get because it said, ‘Absolutely find another profession.’ And then the problems began. My parents found me somewhere else but then they had to go back and I wasn’t in a drama school at the time and then it all became quite scary. London is quite a frightening place if you don’t know anybody. I was very alone. I went to the theatre a lot."

After six months he got into Webber Douglas, then went on to Manchester to do a postgraduate course where he made the curious decision to marry. “Never mind about coming out publicly. The very first stage is coming out to yourself, and that was something I, like most people I guess, struggled with a lot and kept telling myself this is just a phase.”

It doesn’t take much expertise in cod psychology to see why Sher has played so many outsiders - starting, you could argue, with his West End debut as Ringo in Willy Russell’s play about the Beatles (“my first false nose”). In adulthood it took him as much effort to own up to his nationality – he purgatorily destroyed up his old South African passport – as his sexuality. His first act on entering drama school was to suppress his accent, resulting in a faint nasal blockage that hinted at something underneath fighting to get out. And he encouraged an obsession with losing himself inside his own virtuosity. He had an extraordinarily malleable appearance: the only constants were his height (smallish) and teeth (babyish), but he had no trouble looking young, old, tubby, thin, ordinary, insane.

It felt like a form of madness, the terrible feeling that would build up in the afternoon as the evening performance came nearer

“I began by just being very interested in disguise on stage. That was a very important thing, that I was kind of hidden. I discovered I could be other people.” In a sense he was going about his father’s business: his father exported hides. Later, he explained, he grew “more interested in what's inside these people. I think it started happened with things that were personally very important to me, with Torch Song Trilogy, Merchant of Venice. You know, Richard III is not personally important to me.”

“I always felt like a better actor when the roles related to me personally,” he told me another time, “because there was a personal investment. But I’m completely drawn to power-mad and so-called evil people. I’ve been to some dark places so I’m fascinated by the darkness in people.” He was one of many actor knights called upon to play Hitler (in Churchill: The Hollywood Years).

Sher was one of the first thespian grandees to come out. He did so in 1989 at the same time as Characters, a book of his portraits and sketches. "That was the point where it was absurd to not be out, because there were so many pictures in the book of Jim, the guy I lived with at the time. People said, ‘If you come out publicly you don’t get to go to Hollywood’ and you say, ‘Well then you don’t.’ It had been so uncomfortable beforehand: you’d have come to interview me for Torch Song Trilogy [Harvey Fierstein's play about a transvestite nightclub singer] and would have been told ‘he doesn't talk about his private life’.”

He actually came out, as he liked to put it, as a gay, Jewish, white South African. Later he owned up to suffering from cocaine addiction for the best part of 20 years before he decided to clean up for good. As he explained in his memoir, Beside Myself (2001), at his first meeting none of his fellow addicts had heard of him. The books’ reviewers smacked their heads at the obviousness of it all and chorused, “Aaah! So that’s why he was always such a jittery, hyperactive performer.” Completely inaccurate, said Sher. “I didn’t use it much onstage. I did one or two good paintings on coke because it made me very free. It definitely didn’t make me a good actor because it separates you from your feelings and creates a paranoid feeling in you. You wondered whether people were noticing that you were now and then licking your gums.”

If this was not such a surprise, his later confession to suffering from stage fright was. “It felt like a form of madness,” he says, “the terrible feeling that would build up in the afternoon as the evening performance came nearer. I’d be on stage saying the lines and there’d be another voice in my head saying, 'Any moment now you’re going to f*** up.’ There’d be a second voice telling me to shut up.”

Woza ShakespeareFor a time, while playing Iago for the RSC, he thought of giving up acting altogether. The eventual cure was to write and perform in a one-man show, in which he played not just any man, but Primo Levi in an adaptation of If This Is A Man. It took him and the National Theatre two years to persuade the Levi family to break their strict embargo on adapting the author’s account of his experiences in Auschwitz. With permission finally secured, he conceded that “it was good to have that material, because if I ever got frightened I could just say my fear is so unimportant compared to his fear of living in this nightmarish place.”

It was one of those roles he found so vast and taxing that it spawned a book. The most autobiographical of these was Woza Shakespeare! (1996), the diary he kept with Gregory Doran about mounting Titus Andronicus in South Africa, then bringing it to England. Edited by Andrew Motion, and with a cover illustration by Sher, it has a page-turning inter-continental plot but what made it stand out from the genre is the book’s domestic intimacy: Doran and Sher had lived together for 10 years by then but this was the first of their many professional collaborations. Director and star got along just fine, but they hadn’t worked out how to leave the job at the office. One hilarious flying crockery scene narrated by Doran segues into Sher’s account of contritely combing the lawn for shards of china.

If Sher was disappointed by the lack of major screen roles he hid it well. In Shadey (1985) he played a man who performs a sex change operation on himself. There was a small flurry in the second half of the 1990s. In Mrs Brown (1997) he caught the eye as Disraeli, and the following year as Dr Moth in Shakespeare in Love. He was a hammy Sergeant Cuff, Wilkie Collins’s prototype detective, in a TV adaptation of The Moonstone. His bravest screen performance was in Alive and Kicking (1996), also known as Indian Summer, a barely remembered film scripted by Martin Sherman about an Aids counsellor who has an affair with a ballet dancer diagnosed as HIV-positive. It contained the frankest depiction of homosexual love-making yet filmed with such an established actor. Opposite Jason Flemyng, Sher played the scene naked with his knees behind his ears. “It was incredibly brave of me!” he said. “I find that kind of stuff very difficult. It’s going beyond the normal call of actorly duty. We were both very relieved when the day was over.” There was the odd award for these performances, but he found attending awards ceremonies difficult: in 1997 he was happy to be out of town when he won an Olivier for Stanley, and again when he was nominated for a Tony. (He also won an Olivier jointly for Richard III and Torch Song Trilogy in 1985.)Antony Sher as FalstaffThat there weren’t more screen leads “actually ceased to be an issue for me,” he said years later. “People have an idea that films are what everyone wants to do. Maybe I did think that as well. A few years ago my agent said, ‘If you really want to do it you are going to have to stop doing these big theatre contracts. Let’s take some time out, read scripts, go up for things.’ And I’ve never read so much rubbish in all my life. I went up for some things. It just doesn’t work for me because what I can do as an actor I can’t bring into a room to meet someone. This is what a film director would be meeting and you’d think, ‘He’s not very interesting.’ And I don’t get the part. But American film actors – they are what you meet. That’s what they do. And that’s not me.”

Instead he committed to a lifelong exploration of the great writers and the great roles. Too numerous to list, they included Shylock, Cyrano, Falstaff (pictured above with Alex Hassell), Arturo Ui, Leontes, Tamburlaine, Macbeth and Prospero. In work by contemporary playwrights he shone in, among others, Tom Stoppard's Travesties, Peter Flannery's Singer, Peter Barnes's Red Noses, Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Broken Glass. Climactically, in 2019 he and his compatriot, the actor-playwright John Kani, appeared in Kani's two-hander Kunene and the King. Ostensibly about a black carer and his white terminal patient, it also told of their shared history as South Africans growing up under apartheid.

When Sher was playing Edmund Kean in 2007, in a play adapted from Alexandre Dumas by Jean-Paul Sartre about what it takes to be a very great actor, he came across one speech in particular, delivered to an aspiring actress, which puts in a nutshell everything he had been wanting to say about this strange and unique profession to which he had devoted his life: “You act to lie, to lie to yourself, to be what you cannot be and because you are disgusted with what you are. You act so as not to know yourself and because you know yourself too well. You act because you’d go mad if you didn’t.”

“It’s hard to believe that someone who isn’t an actor could have written that,” he said. “All those levels of self-loathing and vanity and self-display.”

Antony Sher, 14 June 1949 - 2 December 2021

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