“A Terribly Good Innings”: An Interview with Sir Antony Sher
"Those things that happened during the Lear preparations were very tragic and sad, but they did feed into the work. I don’t want that to sound cynical or callous – it’s simply true."
Antony Sher came to this country in the late sixties, so as to attend drama school in the capital, but he was raised thousands of miles from here. I start by asking him what it was like to grow up in apartheid South Africa. “It was a very false world for the white people,” the 68-year-old says, “in that we were living in this bubble of comfort at huge expense to the majority of the population – the black people.” His non-political family, he explains, never questioned the regime or encouraged him to question it; so, at the time, he didn’t realise he was part of one of the worst atrocities of the last century. He had what he defines as “a terrible wakeup call” when he left South Africa for England in 1968, “and was suddenly exposed to British newspapers, British television, to comment on apartheid that I’d never heard in South Africa. I had to become politically educated very fast,” he says, “and with an accompanying sense of shock of what my family and I had been part of – which was somehow made more shocking by the fact we were a Jewish family who had fled persecution in eastern Europe. My grandparents had fled Lithuania because of antisemitism, had gone to South Africa, and then unbelievably become part of the ‘superior’ class of human beings, without drawing any parallels between what they’d experienced and what the black people of South Africa were now experiencing. So I look back at it as really quite an extraordinary and ugly thing that I happened to live through.”
In 1972 Sher portrayed the Fool in King Lear (to his mind “possibly the greatest play ever written”) at the Liverpool Everyman. It was his first acting job after graduating from London’s Webber Douglas Academy, and completing a postgraduate course in Manchester. “It was tremendously exciting,” he says of his time in Liverpool. He was there, he continues, during one of those periods that can occur at repertory theatres: “a kind of golden age [where] there happens to be an extraordinary group of gifted people at the same theatre at the same time”. In this case, the group included the likes of actors Jonathan Pryce, Bernard Hill, Julie Walters, Alison Steadman, and Pete Postlethwaite. “And there were writers like Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale,” he recalls, “who were just starting out, and we were doing their work.” He then adds to the list directors Richard Eyre and Alan Dossor (former artistic director of the Everyman), before concluding: “I could not have chosen a greater place to start my career.”
Ten years after playing the Fool in Liverpool, he performed the part again in an RSC version of Lear. Over three decades later, he took to the stage as Lear himself, as part of the RSC’s 2016 production. As he readied himself for his portrayal of the King, he committed the process to page, resulting in Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries, which publishes this month. He’s written two other books of this ilk, namely Year of the King (about his depiction of Richard III, a performance that won him the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for best actor), and Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries (detailing his preparation for Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II). “I keep a diary all the time anyway,” he informs me, saying it’s “a very good way of offloading the things you’re feeling or experiencing. That becomes even more heightened if you’re playing one of the great Shakespeare parts, because there’s an awful lot of pressure on you and an awful lot of extraordinary things that you’re going to be experiencing and discovering – being able to just constantly write that down I find extremely helpful.”
For Lear 2016, Sher was directed by his husband Gregory Doran – artistic director of the RSC. In Year of the Mad King the author refers to his partner as a Shakespeare purist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean fuddy-duddy, does it? He chuckles, “Not at all. [Greg] has a very wide embrace to all sorts of attitudes to Shakespeare. But in the end he simply worships Shakespeare and wants to serve Shakespeare as fully as he can.” He mentions a passage in the book where someone asks Doran how he’s going to stage Lear, to which the director says he’s just going to try and do it as well as Shakespeare penned it. “If you can simply stage the great Shakespeare plays,” Sher resumes, “as well as they read on the page, you’ve achieved a massive thing.” This, he claims, is very much his husband’s attitude.
While Sher was writing The Lear Diaries, he was faced with great familial tragedy; his sister Verne died from cancer, and his sister-in-law Yvette also passed away (Sher actually dedicates his book to Yvette’s husband, his brother Randall). I ask him if he would have been able to play Lear as well as he did in 2016 had such sorrow not come his way. “Those things that happened during the Lear preparations were very tragic and sad,” he says, “but they did feed into the work. I don’t want that to sound cynical or callous – it’s simply true. In any of the arts (whether you’re a painter, a writer, or an actor) you need life – you need to experience life in order to portray it.”
Leaders besides King Lear feature in Year of the Mad King, namely Jeremy Corbyn, described in the book as having no charisma. It’s some time since Sher formed this opinion of the man at the Labour helm; I wonder if he still holds it. “Well, he’s made great advances,” he replies. “When I was writing, he did seem like a very uncharismatic character. He’s certainly changed himself, grown in confidence – so I think that statement has to be seen in the context of when it was written.” Another part of the diaries sees Sher call The Archers “a least favourite radio programme” of his. To risk offending fans of the show like this is a bold move, I say. “Oh god,” he answers. “Am I going to get into trouble? Oh dear.” He then justifies the remark, suggesting we “balance it with the fact I’m very, very honest about a lot of things in the book, particularly about myself and my own shortcomings. I think when I’m that tough on myself, I can also be a bit tough on The Archers.”
Though he is reprising his role of Lear for the RSC’s 2018 production, there is a line in the book I feel the need to probe him on – “Maybe an actor’s life is no longer one for me.” He tells me he has now run out of great Shakespeare parts to play. “Shakespeare wrote three great parts for older actors – Prospero [The Tempest], Falstaff, and Lear – I’ve done them all now. So as a classical actor, I don’t know quite what’s left. Luckily I write as well, and I paint, so maybe I’ll be doing more of those things and less acting in years to come.”
It’s sad, in a way, I state.
“I’ve had a terribly good innings,” he reasons. “I do find acting difficult, I find the pressure difficult, and it might just be an easier life not to do it anymore. We’ll see – one should never say never.”
Antony Sher appears as King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratfordupon- Avon, 23 May- 9 June. Further, the RSC will be hosting an exhibition of Sher’s own illustrations from Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries and Year of the Fat Night: The Falstaff Diaries – the exhibition runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (PACCAR Room, Level 2), 19 May-23 September.
Sher also appears at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival (17 March, 12pm, Sheldonian Theatre).
Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries publishes 15 March (nickhernbooks.co.uk)
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