Growing up in South Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s, Antony Sher did not fit in. He was white in a country where that was a prerequisite for privilege, but he was also small, dark, Jewish and homosexual. One of the few people to encourage his artistic leanings was a Scottish teacher at his sports-obsessed secondary school.
In the late 1960s he came to England. In some ways it was even worse and he hid the fact he was South African, employing his acting abilities to pretend he came from Hampstead.
Acting had provided him with some escape and he hoped to pursue his ambitions at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It promptly turned him down. He tried the Central School of Speech and Drama. They were equally unimpressed. But he refused to give up.
A decade and a half later Sher had redefined Shakespeare, won an Olivier award and been hailed by The Observer as “the most exciting actor of his generation”.
It was an accolade on which he would build, playing many of the great theatre roles, including Macbeth, Lear, Falstaff and Arthur Miller’s doomed salesman Willy Loman.
Sher’s career really took off with his reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1984, dressed in black, scuttling about the stage on black medical crutches that seemed to be a part of him.
His diary from the time was published as Year of the King and is illustrated with a drawing of Sher, half monarch, half spider, picking up on the “bottled spider” reference in the play. Sher literally sketched out the character in advance.
Like so many great actors and artists, Sher drew on inner demons. But he also researched meticulously. He spoke to psychologists and disabled people and concluded Richard’s personality was not shaped by evil, but by circumstance, the unique combination of unlimited power and limited mobility, twisting his personality.
Sher was born into a Lithuanian-Jewish family in Cape Town. His father was a successful businessman. Sher wrote of his early years: “I don’t fit in… My growing instincts are all towards my own sex and surely no one else in the world is as sick.”
His artistic ambitions were encouraged by a Scottish teacher called John McCabe, whose dry Scottish sense of humour apparently unnerved the rugby types. He tried to teach his class the basics of commercial art, but told Sher: “Dinnae bother with this poster crap Sher. You just draw figures, faces, whatever yer fancy.”
Sher had paintings exhibited while still in his early teens, and there was talk of further study in Italy before he decided to try to pursue an acting career in London.
He admitted that he had enjoyed the benefits of apartheid without really thinking about the morality of it until he came to London in 1968 and found South Africa excited widespread antipathy.
“If anyone asked me where I was from I would lie,” he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2001. “If they asked where I went to school, I'd say Hampstead, which got me into all sorts of trouble because of course everyone else went to school in Hampstead and they wanted to know which one.”.
“Then there was my sexuality. The theatre was full of gay people, but none of them were out… So I thought I'd better hide that as well. Each of these things went into the closet until my entire identity was in the closet.”
After the RADA knock-back, he got a place at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art and wound up at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, where contemporaries included Jonathan Pryce, Bernard Hill, Julie Walters and writers Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale.
He played Ringo in the original 1974 production of Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert, in a cast that also included Bernard Hill as John Lennon. It transferred to the West End.
Unlike other great theatrical actors of the 20th century, such as Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen, Sher never really made much of a mark in the movies, although one of his most notable early roles was as Howard Kirk, the lascivious university lecturer in the BBC adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s novel The History Man in 1981.
He did later appear in several films, playing Disraeli in Mrs Brown, Hitler in the comedy Churchill: The Hollywood Years and the Chief Weasel in The Wind in the Willows, but his greatest achievements were certainly on stage.
He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982 and played The Fool in King Lear, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award as Best Supporting Actor. During that production he tore his Achilles tendon, which necessitated the use of crutches and sowed the seeds of his Richard III.
He won a slew of awards and was knighted in 2000. He was also a gifted writer. As well as Year of the King, he chronicled his life and career in Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries, Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries and Beside Myself: An Actor’s Life. He attended the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2009.
Beside Myself begins with Sher as a two-year-old who gets out of bed and is on his way to his parents’ room to show them the poo he is very proud of. He is intercepted by his elder sister, who is horrified.
“The shock of this never leaves me,” he wrote. “It will recur again and again in my life: me bearing forth some seemingly splendid thing, only to bump into a critic.”
Even his Richard III did not please everyone. He had seemingly done everything an able-bodied actor could do to inhabit the role. But he faced a backlash from some within the disabled community, who felt the role should have gone to a disabled actor. His reinterpretation of the part was subsequently revived by disabled actors.
For Macbeth his rigorous research included interviewing men who had actually stabbed their victims to death. On this occasion his performance attracted praise while avoiding any significant calls for the role to be restricted to genuine knife murderers. Or Scotsmen. Or kings.
Antony Sher was an actor.
It was revealed three months ago that he was terminally ill with cancer. He is survived by his husband, theatre director Gregory Doran. They entered a civil partnership in 2005 and married ten years later.
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