Sir Antony Sher is instantly recognisable, though his appearance is at first something of a fright. He sports as much unkempt hair, flecked with silver (he turns 60 this year), on the top of his head as under his chin — what he calls his “crazy look”.
“London taxi drivers won’t stop for me,” he says. “They think I’m a tramp or a terrorist. They won’t stop and it drives me crazy. I want to get a sign,” he gestures round his neck, “saying I am an actor at work. I’ve never had my hair this long. I keep telling Greg [Doran, his partner] I’m on an island where there is no hairdresser and no shampoo.”
Sher is performing the role of Prospero at the Baxter Theatre for its joint production with the Royal Shakespeare Company of The Tempest.
He has an attentive manner, leaning forward and engaging one with his alert, pale eyes that make a handsome combination with his Ashkenazi looks. Thankfully Sher is not eager to talk about himself. Instead, his enthusiasm is immediately apparent when we touch any subject close to his passion. Clearly, the murder of actor Brett Goldin still affects him deeply.
In 2006 Sher made a documentary, Murder Most Foul, about rampant violent crime and the murders of Goldin and designer Richard Bloom, that dislodged many South Africans.
“I’m very proud of the film. But it has slightly changed me — I’m a little more nervous of Cape Town. Sometimes you learn more than you wish to know. I found a side of this city I didn’t know much about. If people are upset by it, they should be. Denise [Goldin’s mother] is coming to a performance [of The Tempest] as a fundraiser for the [Goldin] bursary and the film has her full approval.
“The crime figures are astronomical. The question to ask is what is being done about it. When Helen Zille came to the screening at the documentary film festival she was in tears afterwards and she said she was going to do something. I don’t know. What has she done?”
I ask if the event changed his attitude to the country of his birth. “I’m totally in love with South Africa. The plane touches down and something in me just opens. It’s the smells, the light, sounds, all so much in my blood. Even in the years when I came back here with a hatred for apartheid, the actual sensory feelings were always undeniable, so then I had a love-hate relationship. Now it is pure love. I’d happily buy a place here.”
Sher was instrumental in establishing the Goldin bursary and will present a lunch-time masterclass entitled Shakespeare and Me on Wednesday, January 28, to raise more funds.
“The award takes them to Stratford and they get all the classes and workshops and sit in on the rehearsals as observer students. So to follow that up with being in a Shakespeare production is really a terrific step. When we did Titus Andronicus, we found that South African actors have a particular kind of energy that is earthy, very un-British, perhaps more like American actors, with balls to it.”
Of the production he says: “It’s a genuine cultural exchange. The actors are bringing that particular South African energy and we are bringing some Shakespearean know-how. The head of voice, Lyn Darnley, has been here throughout the rehearsal period and Greg [his partner and RSC chief associate director] has been doing workshops and individual work. There’s something very exciting about two cultures sharing their strengths.”
By chance all three of the bursary recipients, Omphile Molusi, Thami Mbongo and Nicholas Pauling, were available to do The Tempest. Sher himself of course undertook a similar, often painful journey.
“As a kid from Sea Point, I came to Shakespeare feeling I was trespassing really as I came from such a different background than the tradition of classical actors. But after my 27 years at the RSC I have now reached a point where I feel it is absolutely my right and I’m comfortable.”
“My Bar Mitzvah was a traumatic event, because you have to sing and I’m tone deaf and my teacher was horrible, cruel and brutish. The year of studying for it was so traumatic because I was humiliated in the class by him. On the day I finally did the Bar Mitzvah I remember how I went to bed saying I’ll never have to get up in front of people and talk again. That was the comforting thought with which I went to sleep.
“When I went to drama school I didn’t picture a classical career. I don’t know if I had any idea, but if someone told me I would end up mainly as a classical actor I would have been surprised. I didn’t look like the great noble generation of Olivier, Gielgud. They were all such tall, handsome, essentially British men and I was this little Jewish whelp from Sea Point. I didn’t imagine I’d ever be in that same territory.”
Sher still flirts with giving up acting and dedicating more time to painting. “It’s what I did first as a kid, drawing. I was always going to go to art school. To this day I regret not having gone. It is worth learning the technique, so I still have to struggle because I didn’t have the technical training, though I had a good art master at school.”
From the work he shows me it is clear he is as talented a painter as he is an actor. At the end of each performance he paints the character he has portrayed. “It is a way of putting that to rest. I mostly don’t do self-portraits, except in character. I’m not sure why that is. Last year I took off acting and I painted. My big passion at the moment is a huge oil painting six by seven feet [1,8m x 2,1m], a giant composition of 120 portraits.”
He shows me a photograph of the work in progress — rows of portraits, from his icons such as Mandela to characters in his novels. They are seated facing him as an audience, though the chairs resemble gravestones.
“It is very personal. It’s been churning up stuff.” He points to the Bar Mitzvah teacher.
But Sher can rest easy these days. He is an extraordinary and illustrious performer and, although it is no longer the fashion to say so, he is a proud son of his native country who is making his best contribution.
The Tempest runs at the Baxter Theatre until February 6. Attend a lunchtime masterclass with Antony Sher at 1pm on January 28