From Deformity Comes Greatness: Antony SherDate: 24 September 2001
In Mahler's Conversion, opening this month, the award-winning Antony Sher plays legendary composer Gustav Mahler. Author Brian Masters reviews some of Sher's most famous roles and explains why this physical actor is a legend himself.
An Intensely Physical Actor
Antony Sher is a creative actor who "forgets" himself by fastidious attention to costume and make-up. As the Fool in King Lear (1982), he transformed himself into a grotesque cripple, as his research had taught him that jesters in mediaeval courts were frequently chosen from dwarfs or deformed people. As Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1987), he became an oriental, complete with turban, long hair, full beard, and gorgeous flowing robe.
In Richard III (1984), already historical for his being the first actor in that role to banish the memory of Olivier's unsettling performance 40 years earlier, he wore a hideous hunch on his back, made one leg look withered, and supported his revolting body on a pair of crutches. The modern play Torch Song Trilogy (1987) revealed an actor who could transmute into a blatant, hilariously loud and over-painted transvestite, while Cyrano de Bergerac (1997) was so convincing that the outsize nose really did appear to be his.
Sher is an intensely physical actor, recreating his appearance with every role. It is like somebody building a cathedral with meticulous attention to balance and shape, only to tear it all down and start again the next time. That, of course, only gets as far as the externals. He also makes a penetrating study of the inner secret springs of the character's behaviour in an attempt to assume his mind as well as his body. In view of his long line of portraits of deeply unpleasant men, some even vile, one must hope that technique plays a greater part in these transformations than does identity, but the boldness of the attempt has a long pedigree.
Sher & Shylock
Sher's Shylock was his own creation. Wild, staring eyes, a heavy foreign accent, a high-pitched unnatural cackling laugh, you could almost smell his foreignness from the stalls. Decidedly to be kept at arm's length, this was an utterly strange individual whose rather sticky presence made one's flesh creep. That, at least, was the initial impact. But then Sher took us further, and made us understand, from the inside, a character whom we thought we never could or would ever want to comprehend. It was a masterpiece of compassionate honesty.
The scene in which he was mocked and beaten to the ground by a mob of thuggish Christian urchins, then spat upon and treated with fiendish contempt, was so moving as to be scarcely bearable. Sher showed us the anger of the man kept in check by his pride of race and of person. By the line, "The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction", delivered with cruel but justified sarcasm, he had the audience on his side. One critic wrote that it was a "spectacular and thrilling conquest of the role", another that his performance had "formidable range, embracing savage irony, cries of rage, strange religious rituals, and moments of desolate grief".
In Richard III, Sher brought an insidious charm to the role, making Richard's dramatically implausible seduction of Lady Anne by the coffin of her late husband, whom he has murdered, for once not merely acceptable but shudderingly true; you felt the sexual attraction of deformity, and the guilty rustling of audiences as they recognised this response in themselves was palpable.
Risks Worth Taking
The style of acting which takes such huge risks must occasionally tumble over the precipice. Sher has sometimes come close to what looks like parody. His depiction of the religious hypocrite Tartuffe in Moliere's powerful play of that name was so transparently sinister that one could not understand how anyone, however pious, could have been taken in by him. His Malvolio in Twelfth Night was rather too obviously a raving lunatic. Both these performances were examples of huge brush strokes of violent colour blocking out the subtle detail that was assuredly underneath.
It did not matter, because the risk, with Sher, is always worth taking. In an appreciation in The Guardian, Michael Billington wrote, "you go to each new performance, as to Olivier's, expecting a detailed novelistic creation", and that in the classics Sher had the vital ability to "dismantle received ideas and stock responses". So, one had an impression of Antony Sher the daredevil firework, lighting up the theatre with stark flashes of technical fertility, and if occasionally one is dazzled into bypassing the psychological detail which lurks within, it may be a price worth paying. He was always big, grand, expansive and intoxicating.
Then, in 1996, Sher astonished us with a performance of quite a different stamp in Stanley, playing the role based upon the life and character of the painter Stanley Spencer. Not that the transformation was not complete as always, with Sher assuming a new shape, a new voice and a new demeanour, but it was totally subservient to the psychological truth of the part, and it spiked out the details. It was a meticulous portrait rather than a Rubens-like wall-covering. And the character himself was no longer villainous, oily or pathetic; he was sweet-natured and sensitive, a man of genuine spiritual goodness. That Sher could capture this man and give him to us seemed like a miracle.
Describing Sher in Stanley, John Peter of The Sunday Times wrote that the actor exhibited the "cocky but stolid walk of villagers, shy but aggressively pigeon-chested, standing with his legs bent slightly outwards like a donkey observing a friendly stranger". The Independent noticed him "blinking sweatily as he runs his hands up skirts", and the "bumbling, innocent manner" in which he mucked up other people's lives". Another critic in the same newspaper described him as "a bespectacled nerd...you completely believe that here's a man who could marvel for hours at the beauty of woodlice in the loo."
Casting a Spell
All were agreed that the actor had vanished behind the performance, that Sher had accomplished that most precious of feats, to lose oneself and create another, to the point where the audience believed in the creation, no longer in the actor. One critic said he left the theatre feeling he had genuinely come face to face with the great painter Stanley Spencer, and had to pinch himself to be brought back to the world outside. The experience was "spell-binding", said another.
The use of the clichéd word "spell-binding" is justified in reference to Antony Sher; it is the only one that will do, for a great actor must indeed cast a spell if he is to dominate the audience and bring them to see truth through his eyes.
Extracted from Thunder in the Air: Great Actors in Great Roles by Brian Masters (Oberon Books, priced £19.99).
Antony Sher is currently starring in Ronald Harwood's Mahler's Conversion, which opens next week at the West End's Aldwych Theatre after an initial run at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. To join Whatsonstage.com to see this production this Friday 28 September (top price seats plus programme and drink for £22.50), click here.