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The Big Interview: Antony Sher

Antony Sher in rehearsal earlier this month for the role of Willy in Death of a Salesman, which runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until May 2. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

At the end of the third week of rehearsals for the Arthur Miller centenary production of Death of a Salesman for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Antony Sher sits back in an office chair in the American Church on Tottenham Court Road, pats his still slightly Falstaffian tummy and sips from a well-earned glass of Chablis. Three more weeks before they open in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 17.54.07“It’s ridiculous in this country,” he confides in careful, measured RP tones, “six weeks of rehearsals is not nearly enough for these great plays. In Europe or in Russia they rehearse for months. I’ll put in a complaint to the artistic director.”

The artistic director is Gregory Doran, Sher’s civil partner since 2005, who is directing the Miller play. I was under the impression they didn’t talk about work when they got home to Islington, north London, or their house across the Welcombe fields in Stratford-upon-Avon.

“We learned not to talk shop the hard way, when we first worked together on Titus Andronicus in 1994. But you’ll find one example of lapsing in my new book [A Year of the Fat Knight, about playing Falstaff, directed by Doran] when I march into his study and demand to break the house rules.

“We are both workaholics – I get depressed if I don’t write, paint or rehearse a play. When Greg got the top job at the RSC people said ‘good luck’ – not to him, but to me; I didn’t know what they meant, so I asked previous RSC boss’ wives – Joanne Pearce [Mrs Adrian Noble] and Caroline Boyd [married to Michael] – and they said, you’ll find out… and I have. I sometimes feel as though I’ve lost my best pal for long periods.”

One way of getting round this must be to work together all the time. Sher’s Willy Loman in Salesman will be followed next year by his King Lear, also directed by Doran, and there’s talk, too, of the two Henry IV plays and this season’s new Henry V returning some time with another Doran production, the Richard II with David Tennant, to complete the well-tried early history cycle.

By which time Sher will have exhausted all the Shakespearean roles he covets. But he’s quick to point out that not all of them have been directed by his partner. Most of his career, since he joined the RSC in 1982 to play the Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear in 1982, has been with that company. And before Doran was appointed artistic director in 2012, Sher worked five times with Bill Alexander (including his unforgettable arachnoid Richard III on crutches), three times with Terry Hands (his Tamburlaine was a psychotic street-fighter in Mohican hairstyle, rags and animal skins), four times with Doran and twice with Adrian Noble.

Doran’s first idea for Falstaff, says Sher, was Ian McKellen, but McKellen told Greg that he was already living with him. Then Doran approached Derek Jacobi. So Sher – for whom Falstaff “was nowhere on my radar, not even remotely” – agreed to help out, and the early part of the new book sees him struggling to decide if he could possibly take him on, and do the RSC a favour.

As Marvolio in Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in which Sher played opposite Roger Allam’s Sir Toby, 1987
As Marvolio in Twelfth Night at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in which Sher played opposite Roger Allam’s Sir Toby, 1987

“Also, in the book, I wonder why it is that Falstaff is not one of the parts against which a classical actor measures himself. Even Olivier didn’t play it, saying it was Ralphie’s [Richardson’s] part, but no one defers to other Hamlets, and the American critic Harold Bloom, for instance, thinks that Falstaff is on a par with Hamlet as the greatest role in Shakespeare. I would have given a limb to have seen Paul Scofield play him, he had such a lovely sense of the vulgar.”

Sher has received long service medals in the form of an RSC associate-ship and a knighthood. Does Death of a Salesman’s Willy, trudging his beat on a smile and a shoe-shine, compare to the Bard in his tragic dilemma?

“Absolutely it does, it’s a huge role, and Miller somehow, like Shakespeare, manages to write this role as well as the whole human experience. It’s extraordinary. I don’t know how he did it.” Does Willy have any Sophoclean self-knowledge at the end? Very long pause. “I’m not sure. I don’t think so. He’s really cracking up quite badly by then. We did that wonderful scene in the chop house yesterday; in the middle of it he’s back in the hotel room. He’s come back, the boys have gone.

The boys, his sons, are played by Alex Hassell and Sam Marks, Prince Hal and Poins to his Falstaff, and his long-suffering wife is played by Harriet Walter, who’s used to being blind-sided by Sher as an errant husband – she was Lady M to his Macbeth in 2000, easily the best small-scale RSC version (directed by Doran) since McKellen and Judi Dench for Trevor Nunn. Is he happier having a caucus of familiar colleagues around him? “It’s more than that. It actually saves time. You have an instant ease and rapport. We were setting the scene the other day in the Loman house and Harriet and I were able to say, well, it’s slightly nicer than our last place in Dunsinane.”

Sher as Phillip Gellburg in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at the Tricycle Theatre, London, in October 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Sher as Phillip Gellburg in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at the Tricycle Theatre, London, in October 2010. Photo: Tristram Kenton

He reminds me that he played the small role of the boss who fires Willy in a Nottingham Playhouse production by Richard Eyre in the mid-1970s, though he’s unforthcoming on how much he learned from Jimmy Jewel playing the lead. A more rewarding Miller experience came with Broken Glass five years ago (at the Tricycle, Kilburn, and in the West End) when he played a self-hating, impotent Jewish businessman in New York in the 1930s trying to ignore his wife’s premonitions of Kristallnacht in Berlin.

Such roles have proved cathartic in the sense of allowing him to use and reassess his own experience of being a Jewish South African; his grandparents were Russian Jews who emigrated to Cape Town. But as he recounts in his autobiography, Beside Myself, he grew up insulated against the injustices of apartheid on his doorstep. His father was an export businessman dealing in skins and hides, the family (Sher has two brothers and a sister) were well educated and had servants. On the beaches at nearby Sea Point they could see Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.

After spending a year in the South African army he came to England – it was reading the theatrical monthly Plays and Players that made him want to work in the theatre – and took a postgraduate course in drama at Manchester University, where he was briefly married to an American fellow student (female). He trained at Webber Douglas – having been turned down by other drama schools – played a season at Frinton Rep and joined the Liverpool Everyman, which is where I first saw him, playing Ringo Starr in Willy Russell’s John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert in 1974.

This was the famous Liverpool Everyman of Alan Dossor and John McGrath and an acting company including Julie Walters, Alison Steadman, Jonathan Pryce, Bernard Hill, Bill Nighy and Matthew Kelly (who is now playing parallel with Sher in the RSC at Stratford); this was the making of him, while seasons with Gay Sweatshop in London (with his friend, rival and exact contemporary Simon Callow) enabled him to express his sexuality at last on stage and indeed offstage in his lifestyle.

As Shylock at the Barbican, London, 1983. Photo: Zuleika Henry
As Shylock at the Barbican, London, 1983. Photo: Zuleika Henry

I’ve always felt that this long struggle with his own identity was the making of him as an actor and in that respect he had a sort of advantage over people who had no such conflict with their background, ethnicity or sexuality. He is dumbfounded. “I did think of it all as a huge disadvantage which I had to overcome.” But surely having to prove yourself is the whole point of your energy? “It’s all thanks, or blame, to Terry Hands at the RSC who saw me as a classical actor in a way I didn’t at all at the time. Terry created my classical career – obviously not in the same way as he guided Alan Howard, who was absolutely built to be a heroic, classical actor – and throughout all my work with Bill Alexander, he was there, encouraging me, certain that I could become… something.”

His performance in the title role of Peter Flannery’s Singer, directed by Hands, and the first contemporary play in the Swan, was a furious, extravagant caricature of the 1960s rackety landlord Peter Rachman; his explicitly semitic and violently unpleasant Shylock – one of his signature “outsider” roles with the RSC – proved that the play is (only in part) about anti-semitism, not inherently anti-semitic (as Othello is about racism without being racist); and his more supple, underrated performance in Nicholas Wright’s Travelling Light at the National in 2011 revealed a world of illiterate timber merchants in an Eastern European shtetl discovering the release, and escape, of moviemaking.

In playing these characters in flight, or in conflict, he does a prodigious amount of research and fills notepads with sketches and cartoons. For his most – and only – famous television role, the right-on lecherous academic Howard Kirk in Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, he took a crash course in sociology. For Leontes in The Winter’s Tale he studied the psychology and psychopathology of jealousy. And for Macbeth he spoke to a couple of murderers, both of whom told him that they only had nightmares when fully awake. His dead Banquo, therefore, appeared as a waking ghost, no sign of blood anywhere.

The Tempest, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The Tempest, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2009. Photo: Tristram Kenton

His capering, deformed red-nosed Fool in Lear – in retrospect a dry run, almost, for his Richard III – was the result of research into medieval clowns who were often crippled outcasts. Did he think that his own Lear’s Fool next year would be similar? “I’ve no idea. You know the play well, but until you read it again with a view to performing it – which I haven’t done yet – it becomes completely different. One of the things about that Gambon production was that my Fool absolutely loved nuncle; an actor I won’t name said that when he played Lear, the Fool hated him, and that didn’t work.

“The playful, loving relationship that Michael Gambon and I had all through rehearsals and a little bit in performance – until the reviews came out – was something I’d like somehow to replicate.” You mean Gambon felt you’d stolen some of his thunder? “Yeh. I mean, I might have reacted the same way if I’d been playing him and read those reviews. Not, I hasten to add, that I read reviews, but you do get told about them.” It was Gambon who, it’s alleged, sarcastically reminded Sher that the play they were doing was King Lear, not King Lear plus a c*** in a red nose. Whatever the ding-dong, Adrian Noble’s production was one of the best in RSC history, and the first in which King Lear actually killed his own Fool (with feeling, by the sound of it).

Critics have blown hot and cold about the external, emphatic and mimetic side of Sher’s acting. The Jewish Chronicle certainly thought his Shylock was over the top. But he’s never been afraid of going to extremes. And Sher has tested himself with every kind of director. He admires Steven Berkoff – perhaps an even more controversial performer than he is himself – indeed was taught by him, and played a memorable Joseph K in The Trial at the National, with Berkoff in a showy supporting role; needless to say, they’ve both been sensational Arturo Ui’s.

And for Mike Leigh’s Goosepimples at Hampstead Theatre and the West End he sailed hilariously close to the politically incorrect wind as an Arab small businessman, with very little English, who mistakenly thinks he’s in a brothel when he comes home with a croupier to a second-hand car salesman’s flat in Dollis Hill.

He doesn’t regret that his film career is “non-existent” (though he was an excellent Benjamin Disraeli in Judi Dench’s belated breakthrough movie, Mrs Brown), but if it had happened, he says, “it would have been in an independent film, or with Mike Leigh; Mike did phone me up when he was planning Topsy-Turvy, the Gilbert and Sullivan movie, but I reminded him that I’m tone deaf, so he put the phone down pretty quickly.”

Had he come to any conclusion as to what constitutes good acting? “No, other than that you can smell it. You can see it, and feel it, instantly. I don’t believe there’s one way of doing it, and I find myself changing from show to show. I like that. I think that sitting back on the job leads to – sorry to speak ill of the dead – what happened to Richard Burton, who had the most fantastic talent. He sat back on it and became boring. In fact, when you read his diaries, you realise how much he hated, or looked down on, acting.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 17.56.42He’s written about the theatre almost as much as John Gielgud did, or Simon Callow still does. I once asked Gielgud about this: “They are both so very clever,” he said, “and so lively, Sher and Shallow, I mean, Callow…” But he’s also written four well received novels – the impetus for the first came from Julian Barnes, who had admired his diary about playing Richard III – a brilliant and almost embarrassingly frank autobiography and three plays: ID about the 1966 assassination of Dr Verwoerd, the South African prime minister and architect of apartheid, by a Greek Mozambican immigrant; a one-man show (for himself) in Auschwitz based on the writings of Primo Levi; and The Giant, which charted the battle between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci over the commission for the David statue in Florence but which fanned out into a drama about art and aesthetics.

On the quiet, he’s a renaissance man all right. Had he come to any conclusions about the art of acting, the marriage of disguise, or transformation, and emotion? “If I’d done Falstaff two decades ago the business of transformation – essential in this case – would have been enough. But I did better than that this time. My real hero is Meryl Streep because she has astonishing powers of transformation but her heart is right in it, with real feeling. What she does is for me the ideal in acting, always.”

Death of a Salesman’s run at Stratford is short, which is odd, and somewhat counter to the RSC ideal of an ensemble company in a repertoire which attracts theatregoers to the sleepy Warwickshire town in the first place. Will that be the end of it? “That’s in the gift of the Arthur Miller estate. I guess they’ll come to the first preview, and then it’s down to the RSC and Thelma Holt, the West End producer.” Oh, is it? What about him?

“I have no contact whatsoever with that side of it all. I’m rehearsing and performing a play. I’ve written a new book with 35 illustrations. Greg has a fantastic team to work with. And we’re very strict about holidays. Greg’s PA is good at spotting a gap in his schedule, then she’ll compare it to mine, and then off we go…” And he dons a cap and slips away into the evening bustle of workers and shoppers outside, curiously anonymous, as Olivier always was “off,” not catching the eye, or the breath, of a salesman.

Death of a Salesman runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, March 26-May 2; Year of the Fat Knight (ISBN 9781848424616, £16.99) is published by Nick Hern Books on April 30 and read by the author as Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 from May 4

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