It’s extraordinary to meet Antony Sher in the flesh: not because the great Shakespearean actor cuts such an imposing figure with the beard he is growing out to play Falstaff in Henry IV, but the reverse: a small, kind, softly-spoken chameleon whose quiet genius is given away only by the twinkle in his eye. Can this really be the same man I saw playing Richard III 30 years ago as a black-garbed avenger, scuttling across the stage and swinging aggressively on his crutches like a human spider?
As a child growing up in macho South Africa, Sher says, "I was small and weedy and useless at sport. When I first went to acting classes, it was liberating to find that by playing other people I didn’t have to be this failure."
He came to London in 1968. In the early days, then, he saw acting as a way to escape from himself. Since coming out as gay—he and his partner Greg Doran, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and director of Henry V, were one of the first couples to enter a civil partnership—he says he has discovered a deeper truth. "Coming out is connected to a journey I have made as an actor. Your initial instinct was that you become other people, it’s about adopting a disguise. Now I see that it’s about revelation. The acting that inspires me is where you see the actor’s soul. My favourite is Meryl Streep: she’s a character actor, she does all these accents, yet her own soul shines through.’"
This is evident from watching his Falstaff in Stratford-upon-Avon, prior to the RSC production’s London transfer. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, "some think the very greatest," says Sher, though not all who play him uncover the complexities in the part: he’s a fighter and a fool, a drinker and a thinker, a lover of practical jokes who becomes, at the end, a tragic figure.
"I love the way Falstaff is a very modern creation," says Sher. "He’s an anti-hero, a rule-breaker, the Lord of Misrule. There are different ways of responding to the outrageousness in it. There is wit and humour, but also the other side: his anger, his melancholy, his fear of getting old. We looked at his drinking as not just merry, but whether, in modern terms, it qualifies as a drink problem."
Sher is no fan of modern-dress productions of Shakespeare, though his Macbeth, which in 1999 was lauded as the greatest in more than a quarter of a century, "started out in traditional clothes and halfway through we changed to modern, which liberated it". With Henry V, he says, "we realised early on we absolutely couldn’t and shouldn’t make it modern."
As a result, of all the great Shakespearean roles he has played, Hamlet is not one; and at 65, it’s now forever beyond his reach. "I regret not doing that," Sher admits, "because I had a kind of clichéd image that Hamlet had to be tall and blond and handsome, whereas now it’s been played by all sorts of actors. I’m now at an age where apart from Falstaff there’s Prospero, which I have played (in 2009), and the other one of which we should not speak."
He means, of course, King Lear, the Everest of any Shakespearean actor’s ascent, but doesn’t want to jinx his hopes by expressing them. In the meantime, Falstaff is as satisfyingly meaty a role as any in theatre. Catch a true master at work while you can.
Book tickets to see Sher in Henry IV at Barbican Theatre (29 Nov-24 Jan).