Sir Antony Sher

Published April 17, 2008

One of the most respected stage actors of his generation, Sir Antony Sher is a man of many talents. In addition to acting he is also a gifted artist and writer with four novels, two theatre journals and an autobiography to his name. As if this wasn’t enough to impress a stone-faced monkey he can now add the title ‘playwright’ to his already bulging CV. His first play I.D., which tells the story of the assassination of South African Prime Minister Hendrich Verwoerd, is currently playing at the Almeida. Matthew Amer spoke to the theatrical knight of the realm…

Sir Antony Sher grew up in the ‘bad old days’ of South African apartheid. Born near Cape Town in 1949 he was brought up in a world of segregation and white domination. At school he had just studied Shakespeare’s political drama Julius Caesar when parliamentary messenger Demetrios Tsafendas calmly walked up to Prime Minister Hendrich Verwoerd in the middle of parliament, drew a knife and a stabbed him four times, assassinating the ‘architect of apartheid’. At the time the political resonance of the action was lost on a young Sher, but the action itself did not pass him by. “It was extraordinary because, as assassinations go, it was such a dramatic one. We had just studied Julius Caesar and before our very eyes a leader of a country was stabbed to death in parliament itself. He was such a powerful, invincible figure, so to see him felled as easily as that was amazing, shocking and startling. It was all so mysterious at the time because the assassin was just whisked out of view and we never really fully understood what had happened.” The assassin, Tsafendas, blamed his actions on the controlling influence and intestinal instructions of a giant tapeworm – now a central character in the play – that had set up residence in his body. The South African authorities took the opportunity to declare him mad and lock him up on death row, in a luxury suite under the gallows, for 28 years; never facing death, but always near it.

"It was extraordinary because, as assassinations go, it was such a dramatic one."

Although Sher had written four novels – Middlepost, An Indoor Boy, Cheap Lives and The Feast – he had surprisingly not felt the urge to try a play until he read Hank van Woerden’s book about the assassination, A Mouthful Of Glass. To many it seemed odd that a man famed for his theatrical prowess should write novels and journals before a play. Although the idea of a play had always appealed to him, he had never had the inspiration to take it on. “When this book came out it was something I felt passionate about. A Mouthful of Glass finally explained a side of what had been almost a murder mystery as far as I was concerned. It was something I desperately wanted to be involved in.”

Sher and his creative team spent two years writing, workshopping and re-writing the production. It was a process in which his vision of the play matured, like a fine South African Shiraz, gradually growing into its current form. Director Nancy Meckler, who has enjoyed great acclaim for her work with Shared Experience, joined the team very early on in the process as Sher did not want to direct his own play; “I would have gone completely mad!” There could easily have been a conflict of ideas, Sher starring in his own play but being directed by someone else, but he did not see it that way. “It was just terrific having her outside eye on it really. And I just think she’s done the most tremendous production. She’s found a way of doing what is not an easy play to stage.”

The lead role of Tsafendas was never one that Sher wanted or intended to play, “We were all resolved that I shouldn’t play the part”, but it was a role that Sher could identify with. Tsafendas was the son of a Greek father and a Black African mother. When he moved to South Africa with his father he was considered white, but never felt he really belonged. He spent years searching for somewhere he could call home as well as for his own identity. Sher, himself, identifies with this search. “As a gay Jewish white South African I belong to quite a lot of minority groups. As part of those minority groups you constantly have to question who you are, what you are and whether you have the courage to be who you are, because they are not always popular things. I certainly went through a long struggle in the early years in this country just to be who I am. But [Tsafendas’] outsiderness is so extreme and so much further than anything I’ve experienced; he makes me look like an insider.” The practice of playing a man who spent “24 years wandering the world, being rejected by every single country” is a sobering and therapeutic one for Sher. It has helped him to put his own ‘outsiderness’ into perspective.

"I went through a long struggle in the early years in this country just to be who I am."

The actors Sher and Meckler thought might be able to convincingly play Tsafendas – they had a shortlist of three or four – were all otherwise engaged for the period of I.D.’s run, leaving Sher to perform in his own play; which meant he was learning lines one night to be able to rehearse the following day only to have to rewrite them when he had finished. “Trying to appear in my own first play was biting off a bit more than I could chew. I would describe the whole process as… at times overwhelming, where I couldn’t see straight simply because of trying to do two jobs. I’m hoping one day somebody else will do this play so I can finally get to see it! I haven’t seen it yet, which is quite frustrating.”

Dramatising an historical event will always have its perils and pitfalls. Walking the line between historical accuracy and artistic interpretation is akin to walking a tightrope above a pit of hungry lions, though with less mortal danger. But, where historical plays are concerned, Sher has a wealth of experience on which to draw and a mentor who wasn’t too bad in his day. “Most of my career has been spent with the RSC doing Shakespeare and the thing you learn from Shakespeare is that his historical plays don’t bear anything other than a basic resemblance to history. I really think that it’s got to be a play rather than a history lesson so I’ve simply taken my lesson from the master and wherever I’ve wanted I’ve let myself invent things or allow encounters to happen.”

Aside from his novels, theatre journals and now his first play, Sher has also published his autobiography. Beside Myself is more than the mere memoirs of an actor, but reflects on some of the most personal parts of Sher’s life: his mother’s constant belief that he would do great things, his father’s less enthusiastic reaction to his artistic callings, his own drive for success and his past problems dealing with an addiction to cocaine. This level of frankness and openness from someone who already considers themselves an outsider is quite astonishing, but Sher is quite matter-of-fact about his decision; “Life is just more comfortable if you’re honest and open about everything. I spent so many years being in the closet about one thing or another. I think [Beside Myself] is about issues that people struggle with so sharing my own experiences seemed like something worth doing.”

"I’m just a little boy from Sea Point, Cape Town."

The highs in Sher’s life more than outweigh the lows. He is generally considered one of the best stage actors of his generation, winning an array of awards, including Oliviers for his performances in Stanley (1997) and Richard III (1985). He is also now officially known as Sir Antony Sher KBE: he was knighted in 2000 for his contribution to the arts as an actor and a writer. It was an accolade Sher did not expect but was thrilled about. “I’m afraid I have no cynicism about it at all. It’s something beyond my wildest expectations. I’m just a little boy from Sea Point, Cape Town. You don’t expect to get the letter saying ‘Her Majesty would like to appoint you Knight Commander of the British Empire’. It was just a completely overwhelming and exciting day.”

After I.D. has closed Sher will resume singular duties, acting with the RSC, playing the treacherous Iago in Othello. But he can also be seen on the big screen alongside Christian Slater, Neve Campbell, Lesley Phillips, Miranda Richardson, Harry Enfield, Reeves and Mortimer and Rik Mayall in forthcoming black comedy Churchill: The Hollywood Years in which Sher plays the entirely uncontroversial part of Hitler. “I’ve spent quite a lot of my career playing various tyrants, so Hitler just seemed like another part.” However, he didn’t plan for just how like the Nazi dictator the makeup marvels could make him look; “There were times I would catch myself in the mirror and there was Hitler staring back. For a nice Jewish boy that can be a bit of a fright!”