Antony Sher: a consummate Shakespearean and a man of staggering versatility

One of the most gifted actors of his era, Sher – who has died aged 72 – combined psychology and a keen sense of the visual in soul-baring performances

Antony Sher, who has died at the age of 72, was a man of staggering versatility. As well as being a brilliant actor, he was an accomplished artist and writer. But, far from being separate, his three careers all fed into each other: you only to have to look at his sketches of Richard III in his book Year of the King to see how his draughtsman’s eye enriched his performance. Gifted in numerous ways, Sher also saw his acting career as one that evolved from impersonation to embodiment of a character.

Sher once told me that, when growing up as a boy in South Africa, his idols were Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers: what he envied, and initially sought to emulate, was their capacity for physical transformation. He also said that, when he left Cape Town at the age of 19 to make a career in the UK as an actor, he was aware, as a gay, Jewish South African, of being a triple outsider. He was even unsure whether he was cut out to be an actor; in his autobiography, Beside Myself, he describes himself arriving in London as a “short, slight, shy creature in black specs” understandably rejected by Rada, who strongly urged him to seek a different career.

Happily, he persevered, but in much of his early work you feel Sher was relying as much on his imitative skills as his inner self. That didn’t stop him being totally persuasive as the Beatles’ legendary drummer in John, Paul, George, Ringo … & Bert, which transferred from the Liverpool Everyman to the West End: he was equally good as the lecherous redbrick sleazeball Howard Kirk in the TV version of Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. But it was his stage performance as an exploited Arab visitor in Mike Leigh’s Goose-Pimples that marked his development as an actor: the performance, based on meticulous research, was mimetically brilliant but also called on Sher’s own experience as an outsider struggling to fit into an alien culture.

Sher’s career really took off, however, when he joined the RSC in 1982. He was an eccentric Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear and was magnetically malevolent as the eponymous hero of Molière’s Tartuffe. It was his performance as Richard III in 1984 that showed his talents working in perfect harmony. With a writer’s zeal, he explored with orthopaedic surgeons the exact nature of Richard’s disability. As an artist, he was able to find a precise visual image for Richard. And, as an actor, he broke away totally from the Olivier template: fleet and demonic, Sher was the fastest mover in the kingdom, making wickedly inventive use of twin crutches that variously became phallic symbols or a cross to betoken Richard’s seeming saintliness.

Stellar acting talent ... John, Paul, George, Ringo ...& Bert by Willy Russell, 1974. From left to right, Phillip Joseph as George Harrison, Antony Sher as Ringo Starr, Trevor Eve as Paul McCartney and Bernard Hill as John Lennon.
From left to right, Phillip Joseph as George Harrison, Antony Sher as Ringo Starr, Trevor Eve as Paul McCartney and Bernard Hill as John Lennon in John, Paul, George, Ringo ... & Bert by Willy Russell, 1974. Photograph: Roger Jackson/Getty Images

It was a career-changing performance, which, over the years, gave Sher the chance to play all the great Shakespearean roles, almost invariably in Stratford-upon-Avon. He was a dazzling Shylock, driven to revenge by Christian physical abuse, in Bill Alexander’s The Merchant of Venice. Directed by Gregory Doran, his partner and eventual husband, he also gave a series of performances that combined abundant physicality with psychological penetration. His Macbeth in 1999 was a supreme fighting machine fatally undone by Lady Macbeth’s taunts about his virility. His Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV was a rivetingly unsentimental portrait of a pub charmer and ruthless operator with a casual disregard for human life: when Sher dismissed his ragged recruits as “food for powder, they’ll fill a pit as well as better”, Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal reacted with a look of appalled horror.

By the time he came to play King Lear in 2016, Sher was a consummate Shakespearean able to bring a lifetime’s experience to the part. He was first seen enthroned like a secular god in an elevated glass cage. Once brought to earth, Sher captured perfectly the emotional volatility that is the key to Lear: having shown a beatific gentleness towards Cordelia, he rounded on her captors with a downright violence as if to remind us that this is a play of irreconcilable contradictions.

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in Macbeth, Stratford, 1999.
A supreme fighting machine ... Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in Macbeth, Stratford, 1999. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Intensely self-analytical, Sher wrote in his autobiography that at the start of his career he was obsessed by his characters’ “casual dress of flesh whereas I’m now more interested in their visible souls”. You could see that in his approach to modern drama. His Ringo Starr in the Beatles’ musical gave us the outward flourish of the man. But by the time he played a New York drag-queen in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in 1985, he was totally within the character: above all, he caught the shape-shifting quality of Fierstein’s Arnold, who could switch in a second from gossipy camp to anxious mother-hen depending on who he was with.

Sher was also able, as much in modern drama as in Shakespeare, to convey the contradictions in a character. His Willy Loman, in the RSC’s 2015 revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was, on one level, a dapper spring-heeled joker who used the old vaudevillian trick of extending his hands as if seeking applause. Yet, the more Willy became trapped in his dreams, the more Sher relapsed into sudden, brick-red rages. And Sher’s last great performance came in John Kani’s Kunene and the King, which called on his emotional memories of South Africa. Sher played a cantankerous old actor physically dependent on a black carer and hoping to overcome illness to play King Lear. Shuffling around the stage in rubberised slippers and swigging forbidden liquor, Sher was not only memorably testy but showed his character experiencing a Lear-like moral awakening.

Sher was a man of many parts and of diverse talents. But, for me, there was a unity about his skills as actor, artist and writer, in that he approached each part with an intense creative fervour, as if it had to be understood equally on the performative, visual and psychological level. And, having started out as a gifted chameleon, Sher became a supreme actor unafraid, whether in Shakespeare or modern drama, to exhibit his own soul.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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