I arrived in England in 1968, determined to become British in every way. I even found the low grey skies rather romantic. I was very nourished by my first few months of theatre-going: to sit at the front of the stalls and watch Olivier at the National was very difficult to get my head around.
London was a mythical place - I'd heard and read so much about its culture that it felt like walking through somebody else's wonderful dream. England suited me temperamentally. Everything about my character seemed too reserved, too private and closed in for the white South African outdoor lifestyle of sports, hunting, shooting and swilling beer. Not only have I become a British citizen and lost my accent, but my work as an actor has been specifically classical, and the most British of British Theatre.
I returned home only three times in the next 20 years. It was particularly difficult in the Eighties. The political situation looked entrenched, heading for a bloodbath that could never be solved. Therefore, in 1988, after a particularly heavy season at the RSC, when I wanted to indulge my passion of viewing wildlife, I booked a holiday in Kenya. (Beyond a brief spell of national service in Namibia, I'd never explored the rest of the continent.)
It was also the beginning of one relationship and the end of another. I was about to go travelling with my then partner, Jim, but I'd just met Greg Doran, my current partner, who was an actor with the RSC, which is quite interesting because the revelation is about two places, as well. Quite traumatic - but it is the continuum of life.
One morning at Tree Tops, the hotel where the present Queen heard her father had died, I had this wonderful moment. It is a strange place and, as it's literally built in the trees, the baboons scurry down the corridors. You get up very early for the game, and just before sunrise in that very strange light - the point where monochrome gives way to the first colours. We sipped our coffee on the veranda and, although still groggy from sleep, I knew something important was happening inside.
The pink coppery sky looked new and old at the same time, virginal and experienced. I relished the way the wet smell was both rotting and fresh; all the death of the night, all the new life of the day, along with a peculiar excitement like the promise of some forbidden fruit, a wildness, a danger: Africa. Under the choir of birds, monkeys, and flying squirrels, there was a ringing and buzzing - a pulse of insects and frogs, like a quiet drumroll: the show was starting. I felt very moved in a way that I couldn't explain: almost shaken, but in a joyous way. But I think what was happening was an identification about Africa and belonging there.
Being gay, Jewish, white South African, I'd cornered the market in minority groups so thoroughly that I'd never felt anything but "other", so I never realised how much I need to be rooted. Somehow, in this sensuous experience, I could separate Africa from the shit of the old South Africa. I resolved that I belonged in two places - Africa and Europe - which was very satisfying. But Africa was the powerful one: my birth place, my homeland. Whatever your mind may be doing, something comes up from the land and says: "You are mine." I may relate to Britain with my head, but with Africa it is not just my heart, but also my belly and my skin. It excites me and frightens me. Life is much more in the raw.
Getting back in touch with Africa has also been part of the reconciliation with my parents. The problems were tied up with their support, even as middle of the road citizens, for apartheid. Resolving my various closets has, I hope, made me understanding of other people. I'm certainly less judgemental about my parents. It was ridiculous, because I was them anyway; you cannot separate yourself just by living in England! What white South Africans did, appalling though it is, was a terribly human thing to do: lead the good life if you can and ignore everybody else's suffering. I suppose I've come to terms with the bits I thought I didn't like about myself. It has certainly changed my acting. I'm much more interested in communicating from the soul, no longer in technical acting, which must have been inevitable, because I'd constructed a personality that wasn't mine.
These days, I often remember my childhood experience of sunlight surfacing and find myself wanting, needing that again: a cold summer like the one we've just had can really start to do something in my blood. When Greg and I booked our Christmas holiday, I got terribly excited: I'm going to get my African fix. We're even talking about retiring there, most probably east Africa rather than the south. It is the Africa of my imagination: the views are so vast, populated by huge herds of wildebeest, I feel I can look right across the continent. It is truly addictive. This book is part of my attempt to describe my relationship with the land and its animals.
I started off thinking being English was good, and African bad. Partly because I came from a foul political system, and partly because culturally it was so inadequate compared to here. However, since my revelation, I've come to love African culture - it is wonderfully rich, which even the worst of colonialism could not stamp out. But the 19-year-old me thought that culture was something to put aside, and Britain was something to aspire to. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could meet your unformed self and try to warn him? What I would say, more than anything, is: "Relax, stop fighting so much. It's going to be all right!"
`The Feast' by Antony Sher is published by Little Brown, price pounds 16.99
Andrew G MarshallReuse content