chapter  17
13 Pages

Antony Sher: Martin White


At the beginning of the televised version of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC) 1982 stage production of Bulgakov’s Molière, Bulgakov (played by Sher) is woken in the night by a phone call from Stalin. In a tense scene, shot in black and white, Bulgakov treads his way carefully through a minefield of unpredictable shifts in his master’s responses. As he puts the phone down, the film shifts abruptly into colour and cuts to backstage at the Palais Royale Theatre in seventeenth-century Paris, as a performance by the company led by the writer and actor, Molière (also played by Sher), comes to a close. Summoned back on stage by the King, Molière, in the role of Sganarelle – wearing a vast wig, gargantuan purple false nose with a giant wart and heavy make-up – improvises a eulogy to his master. For me, the juxtaposition of these two performances provides a metonym for Sher, who, as he has matured as a Shakespearean actor, has fused the virtuoso theatrical style – for which he was first singled out by reviewers and audiences – with what John Peter, writing of Sher’s performance as Primo Levi, described as ‘acting of the purest and most unostentatious kind, unadorned by self-pity or visible virtuosity’ (Sunday Times, 29 January 2006). It is these qualities that define his acting: detailed nuances of gesture and vocal tone, physical and emotional energy matched by deep focus of concentration, the sense of an actor fully inhabiting the role, drawing on a well-spring of feeling, and the confident grasp of the blurred line between the humanity and grotesquerie of life. (These extracts can be viewed on YouTube.)

* Antony Sher came to London from South Africa in 1968 with one ambition: to train as an actor. His first audition was for the Central School of Speech and Drama. Theatre schools require applicants to present a modern and a classical (usually Shakespeare) piece. Sher selected Mick from Pinter’s The Caretaker followed by the more surprising choice of the ageing Cardinal Wolsey from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. Sher gives a glimpse of what his Wolsey might have been like, when he describes showing his prepared speeches to his cousin, the playwright and screen-writer Ronald Harwood, who

sat very still, frozen almost, as, before him, this short bespectacled boy began to waddle round his study, arms hanging wide of the body – meant to indicate great girth, but perhaps more reminiscent of the Frankenstein

monster – while speaking in low, wheezing tones tinged with a slight American accent.