Antony Sher, who sadly died this week, was one of the most respected actors of his generation. Most closely associated with the Royal Shakespeare Company – with whom he performed many of the most famous roles in the Shakespearean canon including Richard III, Macbeth, Lear, Prospero, Iago, Falstaff, Shylock, Malvolio and Leontes, as well as other classical and contemporary roles, and for whom he was an Honorary Associate Artist – he enjoyed a hugely successful career on stage and screen that spanned nearly fifty years. He was awarded a knighthood in 2000, for services to theatre.
In addition to skill as a performer, Sher also possessed many other talents, including as an artist and writer. Nick Hern Books is incredibly proud to publish many of his books and plays, including Year of the King – his gripping account of his breakthrough performance in Richard III for the RSC in 1984 – which has gone on to firmly establish itself as a classic of theatre writing.
Here, to mark the sad occasion of his passing, we share an extract from Sher’s autobiography Beside Myself, in which he reflects how he first fell in love with performing. And NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, remembers his own relationship with Antony – as author, interlocutor, passenger and gift-giver…
This is an edited extract from Beside Myself: An Actor’s Life by Antony Sher.
I owe Esther Caplan my career.
Esther was known as Auntie Esther to all her pupils, though I had a special claim to this name, for my brother Randall had married her daughter Yvette. Esther was officially a teacher of Elocution. This word was more respectable than Acting and more comprehensible to any parents sending their little darlings for tutelage. To learn to speak nicely made sense; to learn to act made none. Who would anyone in Sea Point [a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, where Antony Sher grew up] become an actor? There was the Cape Performing Arts Board, which did occasional shows at the Hofmeyr [a theatre in Cape Town], and there was Maynardville, which did an annual Shakespeare in its leafy open-air auditorium, but there was little other theatre, no film industry whatsoever and television didn’t yet exist. There was some radio work, yes. In other words employment for about five and a half actors in Cape Town. It certainly wasn’t a career for me.
Esther had been an actress herself, during her youth in Johannesburg, and even worked with the most famous Jewish South African actor there’s ever been, Solly Cohen (later known as Sid James, the lovable Cockney of Carry On fame), but now she was a teacher: this had become her Great Role. She was an outrageously theatrical figure, Sybil Thorndike with a touch of Ethel Mermen thrown in. Tall, proud, big-bosomed, with a crash helmet of lacquered blond hair, skin darkly tanned and quite leathery, splashed with turquoise eyeshadow and bright-pink lipstick. She didn’t talk, she boomed and trilled. She didn’t walk, she strode. She didn’t gesture, she carved the air – thumb arched, forefinger splayed from the rest. Ballet dancers use their hands like this to compensate for not being allowed to speak. Esther was sometimes lost for words too, but only after emptying the dictionary: ‘Oh, my darling, that monologue was so outstandingly, brilliantly marvellous that… it was so superbly, fantastically, unbelievably amazing that… oh my darling, I don’t know what to say!’
She called everyone ‘my darling’. She was the warmest of warm springs; she bubbled, she gushed, she overflowed.
Given her style, the surprising thing is that she was fascinated by modern drama. By improvisation, by the Method School in New York, by the new plays coming from England by Osborne, Pinter and Wesker. So my first lessons in acting were not one might expect from a grand dame elocution teacher in some former corner of the empire – not Rattigan, Coward or even Shakespeare – but something altogether more contemporary.
I quickly developed an appetite for my weekly visit to Auntie Esther’s studio: a bare room above some Main Road shops. I ceased to be Little Ant, hopeless at sport, mocked in the showers. Instead I became anyone I wanted to be.
At first the work was very private – just me and Auntie Esther – but I soon grew greedy for the next phase: a public audience.
Every year there was a local Eisteddfod [performing arts competition] in Cape Town’s City Hall. Along with Esther’s other pupils I entered several categories, Monologues, Duologues, and my favourite, Improvisation. You’d be given a subject, five minutes to think about it and then you were on. I used to cheat. I’d prepare situation, speeches and characters, usually based on favourite film performances – Oskar Werner in Ship of Fools, Harry Andrews in The Hill – and somehow adapt these to whatever subject I’d been landed with. No one seemed particularly fazed by the arrival of world-weary Viennese doctor or sadistic British RSM into a scene entitled ‘A quarrel on Clifton Beach’ and I did well; I won prizes.
In my penultimate year at school the English teacher, Quinn, mounted a production of the Whitehall farce Simple Spymen. I got one of the two leads: the Brian Rix role, the dupe, the clown. The gales of laughter that night were overwhelming; a storm of approval from the same people who’d scoffed at us in the playground. I was hooked.
The drug of laughter, the megalomanic thrill of the cheering crowd…
As I hear the tinny echo of cliché drift into the story, it strikes me that I’m not being altogether fair to myself. The attraction in acting is more deep-seated. I recall one late afternoon, finishing a game of Cowboys and Indians in the garden – me aged about ten or eleven – and my sister Verne unwittingly playing the critic again. She said, ‘You’re going to stop this soon, y’know, it’s puerile.’ I had no idea what the second half of her statement meant, but the first was unequivocal. You’re going to have to stop this soon. I remember staring at the churned black soil under a hedge where I’d been hiding and thinking how beautiful that place looked – a dark and dreamy place of make-believe – and how I didn’t want to leave it. Ever. Was there really no way to cheat fate: this inevitable business of growing up, of becoming sensible, of stepping politely on the earth instead of rolling in it? Was there no way of playing on?
Well, yes, there was, I discovered during that performance of Simple Spymen; yes, there were people – adult people – who did this for a living.
I decided I should go to drama school in London. When I told Esther she swelled her great bosom, gestured with balletic poise and boomed assurances: ‘You’re going to make it, my darling, I know you will, I promise you will. And in England, in London – the very heart of world theatre! Oh, it’s so incredibly, marvellously, fantastically exciting that… oh, my darling, I don’t know what to say!’
We started making enquiries about London drama schools and working on audition speeches.
NHB’s founder and publisher, Nick Hern, reflects on his forty-year relationship with Antony Sher.
Tony was a bit of a wonder. A magnetic actor, of course, but also and equally an artist and author. I published five books by him, and in every case the vivid words were illuminated by equally vivid sketches. Also two plays, and a whole volume of his paintings and drawings. Furthermore, he was a delight to work with: punctilious, of course, but open to and eager for comment and improvement. If only every author were as receptive!
I first met him in 1980 in the wake of publication of his first, and most famous, book Year of the King. I had kicked myself for not having had the idea myself of asking him to keep a diary of his preparations for what turned out to be an iconic performance of Richard III. But the paperback rights were still available, so I seized them with both hands. Several equally illuminating diaries followed, on Falstaff, on Lear, on playing Primo Levi – and an eye-opening autobiography, Beside Myself.
With each publication came obligatory appearances at ‘author events’, and I was flattered that Tony, rightly nervous of being interviewed by someone he didn’t know, would ask me if I’d step in. We began to refer to ourselves as the Abbott and Costello of the literary circuit. I was also his chauffeur (Tony didn’t drive and admitted to a total lack of sense of direction), and I would ferry him up and down the country to satisfy the many fans who would congregate at such events – often clutching an ancient, dog-eared copy of Year of the King for him to sign.
As I delivered him back home at the end of what was to be the last of such tours – for Year of the Mad King – we were met at the door by his husband, Greg Doran, clutching a bottle of Bollinger. ‘For you,’ said Tony, ‘for all your hard work’. If only every author were as appreciative!
All of us at NHB are devastated to learn of the death of Antony Sher, who has died at the age of 72. May his memory be a blessing.
Photograph of Antony Sher by Paul Stuart Photography Ltd.