Arts: To play the queen

Antony Sher - actor, writer, painter. All round renaissance man, in fact. And now he is interested in the stuff of souls. In particular, the soul of Shakespeare's great Egyptian lover. Antony is Cleopatra
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The Independent Culture
Antony Sher was on his way to the psychiatrist when I met him. He was to tell me later that the Shakespearean role he still most wants to play on stage is Cleopatra. But it was not to discuss this that he was seeing a shrink. The day before he had been to see the neurologist.

At 49, Sher should be a contented man. His new novel The Feast seems sure to confirm his status as a writer. A surreal political thriller set in east Africa, it is by turns chilling and moving and shows a fevered imagination at work.

And the day job is about to take a new turn. It is curious that Sher's name always springs to mind as one of our great Shakespearean actors. But he has actually only played five Shakespearean roles and not one of the great tragic heroes. His sixth will be Leontes in the RSC's new production of The Winter's Tale. And it is so that he can learn more about the King of Sicilia's irrational jealousy in this late "problem" play that he is consulting psychiatrists and neurologists.

The production, which starts in Stratford and then transfers to the Barbican, is directed by Sher's partner and RSC associate director Greg Doran. Sher talks in matter of fact terms about a normal, loving relationship complete with its rock-solid dependency and its tantrums.

"The worst aspect of being directed by Greg," he says, "is that we lose our best friend. We lose the person that you come home to and say I had a shitty day at rehearsal, or the director's driving me crazy. So home life is quite strange. We're not allowed to talk about it unless one of us asks permission. The first time we worked together was on Titus Andronicus and there were literally flying plates."

It is hard to imagine Sher throwing anything. Shy at first, thoughtful and serious, he is more interested in engaging in genuine conversation than in answering a set of questions. And as he begins to relax, he reveals a refreshingly irreverent political incorrectness. It's intriguing to meet him at a moment when he appears to be reassessing his life, his self- esteem and even his whole acting style.

"I spent a lot of years trying not to be who I am," he says, "be it sexually, or Jewish, or white south African because I don't want to corner the market in minority groups in that way. Now I've not just come to terms with it, I've learned to love those aspects of who I am. And it's stupid to pretend that Africa isn't very powerfully in my blood."

Some of his guilt feelings in the past arose because he never left South Africa out of distaste for apartheid. It was a career move, to go to drama school in England. "No, there was nothing heroic. I wasn't remotely aware of apartheid until I left. People find that hard to believe. But life was so good and comfortable. And my family was so apolitical. We never thought anything other than what the state told us."

In his new novel Sher is vividly in love with Africa again, entranced even by its violence, decadence and comedy. Its protagonist is Felix, who runs a large, run-down theatre somewhere in East Africa. Returning home from America after a spell in rehab, the world seems to have gone mad; he is now sober but the rest of the world is drunk.

But there is tenderness too, particularly in the relationship between Felix and his goddaughter. As Sher claims unfashionably that all fiction is to some degree autobiographical, I wondered if this too was based on a relationship in his own life.

"No. I don't have a godchild. I'm not actually that comfortable with kids at all. I'd be a terrible father because I'm so selfish, so self- absorbed. I'm so busy that there's just space in my life for a big, solid relationship, which I have."

So he doesn't miss children?

"No, I sometimes think there's this strange thing that a lot of other people seem to do. I wonder what that must be like. I feel curious about it, but no sort of gut feeling." He considers this for a moment, then asks: "Have you got children? They must be terribly time consuming?"

Sher's late father was a businessman who exported hides. He saw little of his son, an experience Sher would not want to see repeated, even were he able to choose to do so. "To write and to paint I'd have to lock myself away and then I'd be an awful father. And my father was very remote father who was passionate about his work, and in that period in South Africa had virtually nothing to do with us kids. My mother didn't really either because there were maids and servants to look after the children...

"But I loved writing that relationship in the book because I really enjoyed imagining that, and that relationship, an island of tenderness is very important to the story because the story is so black and violent. No, not black... dark. I must be careful. Political correctness."

Sher is equally cynical about political correctness in the theatre. Bravely, for a white South African, he agrees that it is time to end the bar on white actors playing Othello. "Iago's more my part but I think it's a terrible shame that all the great actors aren't given their Othello. It's tragic, and it's ludicrous really. Why should I, who's not heterosexual, be allowed to play Leontes? Why should we be allowed to claim the souls of different people, yet when it comes to skin colour... it's absurd."

This phrase about claiming the soul is one Sher chooses carefully. And it is not a phrase he would probably associate with his most famous and highly technical performances, such as his high-energy Richard the Third on crutches, in which the emphasis is less on seeking the soul of a part than in techniques of disguise and impersonation.

His change in approach is, he says, "a conversion that I've had. When I started out as an actor my heroes were Olivier and Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness, the great disguise merchants. And I'm not interested in that at all any more. The kind of acting that excites me and moves me is mostly from females: Judi Dench, Fiona Shaw, Vanessa Redgrave. Michael Gambon at his best does that well."

The search for the soul of Leontes has led him from the rehearsal room to the consulting room. "It's really interesting to try and track down what condition he might have. Here is a man clearly imagining [his wife having an affair] and bringing terrible destruction to him and his family as a result. He stops being able to sleep, he hallucinates, his speech is extraordinarily fractured and it's just the most wonderful case history to build up."

Seeking the soul of a character has also led to a request that is the strangest that RSC artistic director Adrian Noble has ever received. Sher explains: "I've asked Adrian if I could play Cleopatra. It would have been played originally by a chap. Adrian said that if he allowed me to do that he would be lynched by about a dozen leading actresses. But it's a wonderful part. Antony bores me rigid."

`The Feast' is published by Little, Brown, price pounds 16.99. `The Winter's Tale' opens in Stratford-upon-Avon on 10 December (01789 295623).