Antony Sher: Theatre giant who brought Shakespeare’s work to life

Antony Sher: Theatre giant who brought Shakespeare’s work to life
Groundbreaking role model for many young actors who played many of the key roles in the Bard’s canon

Antony Sher was one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his era and a major figure on the British stage throughout his extensive career.

Described by Prince Charles as “a giant of the stage at the height of his genius”, Sher, who has died aged 72, had played many of the key roles in the Bard’s canon during his time at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), including for King Lear, Richard III and Henry IV.

Antony Sher was born in Sea Point, a suburb of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1949 to Lithuanian Jewish parents, Margery Abramowitz and Emmanuel Sher, a businessman. Following compulsory military service, he emigrated to London in 1968, enrolling at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, now part of the Central School of Speech and Drama.

His earliest acting roles were with the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, working with Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell, in an environment he described as being where “anarchy ruled”.

Sher’s love for Shakespeare led him to some of the playwright’s greatest roles, having joined the RSC in 1982. Whether as King Lear, Macbeth or Richard III, Sher stole the stage with his moving performances.

He and his husband, Gregory Doran – artistic director at the RSC since 2012 – were one of the first same-sex couples to enter into a civil partnership when it became legally possible in 2005. Their artistic collaborations reached a peak with King Lear at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford in 2016, with Doran directing and Sher as the eponymous king.

Sher as Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 1984

Reviewing the production at the time in The Guardian, the critic Michael Billington notes: “The key to Sher’s Lear lies in his emotional volatility. He is first seen enthroned like a secular god in an elevated glass cage. Once he comes to Earth, he is prey to violent mood swings … He not only illuminates every line, but the spectacle of two instinctively authoritarian old men reduced to childlike dependence is unbearably moving.”

On screen, Sher appeared in a number of films, including Shakespeare in Love (1998), playing Dr Moth whom the young Shakespeare consults about writer’s block. In an especially memorable scene where the young Bard confesses “it’s as if my quill is broken”, Sher, as the psychoanalyst, prescribes a cure involving a bangle found in Psyche’s temple.

Sher as Cyrano de Bergerac

Then, in Mrs Brown (1997), directed by John Madden, Sher stars with Judy Dench, Billy Connolly and Geoffrey Palmer, brilliantly capturing the role of prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Beyond stage and screen, Sher was a keen artist who enjoyed painting figures from the theatre. A self-portrait of him as The Fool is in the RSC collection. Sher was knighted in 2000 for services to acting.

Interviewed in 2018, he spoke about the Bard’s influence on the thespian’s path in later life: “As a classical actor, Shakespeare maps out your career … and I’ve been lucky enough to do quite a few of them, and in the end, he has three great parts for the older actor, which is Prospero, Falstaff and Lear … so you have to acknowledge that you’ve come to the end of what he has to offer. And since my career has been mainly doing him I don’t really know what’s next.”

Sher had last appeared on stage in 2019 for Kunene and the King, written by John Kani. Set in South Africa, 25 years after the end of apartheid, the play depicts an ailing classical actor, his nurse and their shared passion for Shakespeare. Sher himself had been a long-term and committed supporter of the anti-apartheid movement.

In September Doran announced that he was taking compassionate leave to care for Sher in his last months.

Catherine Mallyon, RSC executive director, and Erica Whyman, acting artistic director, said: “Antony was deeply loved and hugely admired by so many colleagues. He was a groundbreaking role model for many young actors, and it is impossible to comprehend that he is no longer with us. We will ensure friends far and wide have the chance to share tributes and memories in the days to come.”

He is survived by his husband Gregory Doran.

Antony Sher, actor, born 14 June 1949, died 2 December 2021