Sir Antony Sher: Actor, Artist, Diarist, Novelist, Playwright

Ian Herbert*

Antony Sher, who has died from cancer at the age of 72 (14 June 1949–2 December 2021), has been frequently described as one of the greatest actors of his generation, a view shared by HRH Prince Charles, an avid Shakespeare enthusiast, who named him in 2017 as his favourite actor.

Born in South Africa of Lithuanian Jewish parents, he grew up in the seaside suburb of Sea Point, Cape Town, where one could look out from the shore on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela’s prison. His talent as an artist was recognised at an early age, but it was his ambition to become an actor that led him to leave with his parents for Britain in 1968. There he was rejected firmly by two leading drama schools, finally gaining a place at the less prestigious Webber Douglas academy. His course there from 1969–71 was followed by a postgraduate year in Manchester.

Antony Sher. Photo: Wikipedia, Accessed 10 Dec. 2021

His professional career proper began at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, in a repertory company founded by Terry Hands, who would later mentor him in the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was to play so many leading roles. He played Ringo in Willy Russell’s play about local heroes the Beatles—John, Paul, George, Ringo—and Bert, transferring it to the West End in 1974 with a cast that included Trevor Eve, Bernard Hill and the singer Barbara Dickson.

In London, in 1975, he worked with the fringe company Gay Sweatshop, alongside his first partner, Jim Hooper, before David Hare directed him that year in his play Teeth’n’Smiles at the Royal Court, where he also appeared in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine, 1979.

He did little work for television, but his 1981 performance as an odious university lecturer in the title role of The History Man, a mini-series adapted from a Malcolm Bradbury novel, is still fondly remembered.

After a 1982 West End appearance in Mike Leigh’s Goosepimples, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford and, in June of that year, made an immediate impression as the fool to Michael Gambon’s King Lear. 

His Tartuffe in July 1983, in the RSC’s London Pit venue, had mixed reviews, but he was well received that year in Peter Barnes’s farcical plague comedy Red Noses and David Edgar’s epic left-wing history, Maydays. In Stratford the same year, he established himself as a major talent with a memorably deformed Richard III in Bill Alexander’s production, winning an Olivier award the following year when it transferred to London, jointly for that performance and his lead role in Harvey Fierstein’s gay masterpiece Torch Song Trilogy. His self-illustrated account of that time, The Year of the King, is one of his many fine literary works, which include three novels.

In Stratford, he established himself as a major talent with a memorably deformed Richard III. “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Trailer. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021

In April 1987, he played Shylock, again for Bill Alexander, in the RSC Merchant of Venice, where he fell in love with the young actor playing Solanio, one Gregory Doran. The relationship flourished, and in 2005 the pair celebrated one of Britain’s first gay civil partnerships, later marrying in 2015. Doran, subsequently, turned his hand to directing, his many productions for the RSC bringing him the company’s Artistic Directorship in 2012. In September 2021, he stepped down temporarily from that post to nurse his husband Antony through his terminal illness.

Sher continued with the RSC in Stratford, in 1987, as Vendice in The Revenger’s Tragedy and Malvolio in Twelfth Night, transferring with the former to London in 1988. That year also included an RSC season at the Almeida Theatre, where he appeared with a fellow South African, Estelle Kohler, in Athol Fugard’s Hello and Goodbye.

In 1990, with the RSC at the Barbican, he made the most of the title role in Peter Flannery’s Singer, about a holocaust survivor turned slum landlord. After a spell with the National Theatre in 1991, playing lead roles in Kafka’s The Trial and Brecht’s Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, he returned to the RSC in 1992 to play a magisterial Tamburlaine in Stratford, and Henry Carr in a London revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in 1993.

He was directed by Greg Doran for the first time in 1994–95 as Titus Andronicus, in a production supported by the National Theatre but rehearsed and first seen at Barney Simon’s Market Theatre, Johannesburg with a South African supporting cast. The show’s complete failure with the local audience, just after the end of apartheid, is amusingly reported in Sher and Doran’s diary of the adventure, Woza Shakespeare! which was, however, able to record its success with English audiences on its subsequent tour to Leeds and (briefly) the National’s Cottesloe Theatre.

His remarkable 1996 performance as the artist Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems’s bioplay Stanley was seen first at the National (where it won him his second Olivier award) and the following year on Broadway, gaining him a Tony nomination. 1997 saw him back in Stratford and, subsequently, the West End, as Cyrano de Bergerac. There followed two more major Shakespearean roles for the RSC, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (1998) and Macbeth (1999), with Harriet Walter as Lady Macbeth.

Sher played Leontes in Winter’s Tale. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021

In 2000, he was appointed KBE (Knight of the British Empire).

In 2001, he appeared at the Aldwych in the title role of Mahler’s Conversion, a play by his cousin Ronald Harwood, directed by Doran, about the Viennese composer’s renunciation of his Jewish faith before becoming conductor of the Vienna State Opera. It had a disappointingly short run. He, then, took two leads in the RSC’s 2002 Jacobean season in Stratford, which producer Bill Kenwright then brought to the West End.

At the Almeida in 2003, he appeared in his own first play, I.D., as the assassin of Hendrik Verwoerd, known as the architect of apartheid, following it in 2004 with another piece of his own, this time a solo, Primo, set in Auschwitz and based on the writings of Primo Levi, which he took from the National Theatre to the Music Box, New York, in 2005. Earlier in 2004, he had played a splendidly devious Iago to the Othello of another South African actor, Selle Maake ka Ncube, directed in Stratford’s Swan by Doran. In 2007, he portrayed another barnstorming actor in Sartre’s Kean, transferring from Guildford to the West End. In November of that year, his next play, The Giant, an RSC commission, imagining a conflict between Leonardo and Michelangelo over the sculpture of David in Florence, was directed by Doran at Hampstead.

He returned to South Africa in 2008 to play Prospero in a much-admired Baxter Theatre production of The Tempest, directed by his childhood friend Janice Honeyman with the great John Kani as Caliban, which came to Stratford as part of its 2009 UK tour. 

In 2008, Sher played Prospero in a much-admired Baxter Theatre production of The Tempest. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021

After a 2010 stint as anti-hero Thomas Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, directed by Daniel Evans in Sheffield, he played in Arthur Miller’s Kristallnacht evocation Broken Glass at the Vaudeville (2011), followed by Nicholas Wright’s Travelling Light at the National (directed by Nichols Hytner, 2012) and Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, in which he played Sigmund Freud, at the Theatre Royal Bath (2012), repeating the role at Hampstead in 2013.

2014 saw his return to Stratford as Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV, followed by a triumphant Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, transferring in the latter to the West End. Henry IV returned to the Barbican in 2016, when Sher played his final great Shakespeare role as King Lear, reprising it in 2018.

His last appearance was with John Kani in Kunene and the King, the latter’s two-hander, which moved from Stratford in 2019 to London in January 2020, where its run was sadly curtailed by the arrival of COVID. Kani’s obituary tribute was simple:

Both Tony Sher and I were born when our country South Africa was the worst place a child could be born let alone to be raised by parents who worked very hard to prepare their children for a difficult future—Apartheid South Africa. By the Grace of his God and my Ancestors, like Romeo and Juliet, we found each other in 1973. We travelled together as compatriots, comrades in the struggle for a better South Africa, as fellow artists and we both had the honour of celebrating together twenty-five years of South Africa’s Democracy in my latest play Kunene and the King. I am at peace with you my friend and myself.  Exit my King.

John Kani, Antony Sher and Janice Honeyman in Kunene and the King. West End. Accessed 9 Dec. 2021

Sher played almost every leading Shakespearean role except Hamlet—in a 2018 interview he said:

Looking back now, I wish I’d played Hamlet, which I didn’t do out of a sense of oppression . . .There was an old-fashioned idea that he had to be tall and handsome and blond. But that’s nonsense, of course. I missed it and it’s my own fault. But otherwise, Shakespeare served me very well. I’m very grateful.

Short of stature, artistically gifted, gay, Jewish, a product of apartheid—Antony Sher made prolific use of all these traits to become one of the finest actors on the English stage, in a bravura, larger than life tradition that put him up alongside greats like Garrick, Kean, Irving and Olivier.

In spite of his extrovert stage persona, he was in private a shy, almost retiring man, who had in earlier years struggled to overcome both mental illness and a serious cocaine addiction, from which his loving partner Gregory Doran was able to release him. 

*Ian Herbert, Honorary President of the International Association of Theatre Critics, is the founder and now Consulting Editor of Theatre Record, the archive of the contemporary U.K. stage since 1981. He has written for theatre journals worldwide and is at present a language editor for Critical Stages.

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