Is Antony Sher the greatest living interpreter of Shakespeare?

Two decades ago, he stunned the world as Richard III. Now his performance as Iago should put him in the pantheon of all-time greats, says Jonathan Myerson
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The Independent Culture

It's the one international competition we always get to win. Some people may rate Mel Gibson's Hamlet and apparently Kevin Kline did pretty well in Central Park in A Midsummer's Night but when it comes to Big Shakespearean Acting, it just has to be a Brit.

Or at least an adopted one. Because this week, by adding Iago to his repertoire, South African-born Antony Sher challenges for the title of Greatest Living Shakespearean Actor.

Unlike major sportsmen, spent by their mid-thirties, Shakespearean actors mature at different ages. We may want our Hamlets young and our Lears old but often this rule has to be broken - rarely is anyone of the right age good enough to play Hamlet and frequently those old enough for Lear are starting to find all those iambic pentameters a little hard to remember. Trevor Howard's last foray into Shakespeare, a radio production of King Lear, was only rescued by the crew spending days and weeks splicing together the tape from a thousand different burbled takes.

So in spite of our obsessive desire for realism, on the stage we still get thirtysomething Romeos and mid-forties Hamlets and pre-senile Lears. Which means that the field is kept nicely open for late-comers - 30 years previously, who would have predicted Nigel Hawthorne as Lear at the National Theatre?

Iago, of course, is one of those indeterminately aged characters. He's kicked around the battlefields of Europe for quite a while alongside Othello but it's never clear exactly how long. And equally Sher has paid his dues - when he first arrived in Britain, callow and boerish, Rada rejected him and others advised him to give up any ideas of the acting profession. But he didn't.

Yet nor did he appear to be coming up the usual Shakespearean ladder. He first arrived in the West End in John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert and made his first big impact at the National Theatre in Sam Shepard's True West opposite Bob Hoskins - as unShakespearean a background as could be hoped for. And few will forget his Rackmanesque performance in the title role of Peter Flannery's Singer, sitting on the edge of the stage, sharing his box of Maltesers with the front row of the stalls. And maybe it is that grounding in other, much more contemporary work, which gives his Shakespearean acting that vitality, that crucial unpredictability.

It's 20 years since he stopped the world in its tracks with his Richard III. Pivoting across the stage on spindly black crutches, looking more a black widow spider than a king, he initiated a whole new wave of Shakespearean acting. His Crookback required such feats of strength and pain-endurance and osteopathy that everyone else just had to emulate it. From now on agony and acrobatics were going to be par for the course if audiences were going to be impressed.

Which is only fitting, because this particular Greatest Shakespearean title race also began with a Richard III - David Garrick's. When he burst on to the stage at Goodman's Fields in 1741, performing the role with stunning naturalism, refusing to strike the then-fashionable poses, the world was equally amazed. Of course, there's naturalism and there's naturalism and for Hamlet, Garrick quite calmly commissioned a stick-up Eraserhead wig - if there was a point to be made, Garrick was not beyond crude fairground huckstering. But Garrick in effect rewrote the acting book. He wasn't interested in beautiful declamation, for him it was about "turns", revelations of his character's inner emotions from moment to moment. Of Macbeth he insisted "his Eyes must Speak, and his Tongue be metaphorically silent; his Ears must be sensible of imaginary Noises." In the 18th century, this was something of a gobsmacker.

But there's no question Garrick brought all the audience's attention on to the actor rather than the production. He became the first theatrical star and only later became a club (these days the great names tend to become theatres instead). Because that's what Shakespearean acting is all about: it's the gold standard, it's the Wimbledon Singles, it's the Olympic 100 metres, it's the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It's about being centre stage and devil take the hindmost. That requires talent and charisma and abundant sexuality (Olivier is still Number One when it comes to that sly, come-hither twinkle) but it also requires a certain amount of dedicated, sportsmanlike ambition.

And maybe that's why we all respond to the stars' competitiveness with some of our own. Just as we while away Sunday afternoons devising our Best Ever Cricket XI or World Rugby XV, we also want to compare this Othello with that one.

Of course, Othello is now one of the few roles that does not feature on the medals table. Ralph Richardson and Laurence Olivier were both able to make their mark as the Moor but, thankfully, that is now unthinkable and it's Iago that sets the test for white actors. In fact, Ian McKellen, the man who last night may well have surrendered his crown to Sher, last appeared at the RSC as Othello, opposite Willard White.

But this divide isn't the only distinction forced by genetics. There's gender: the women's crown surely belongs to Dame Judi Dench, few would argue with that. But like women's golf, it's somehow not as important in the world's eyes. It's not women's fault and it's certainly not Shakespeare's but he just didn't write enough big roles for women. Just skim along the titles and the point is made. Dench and her heiress-apparent Juliet Stevenson simply do not get the range.

So, apart from Olivier's 1922 Katharina in Taming of the Shrew, all actors are fundamentally type-cast, if only by their shape and gender. It is hard to imagine Sher as Falstaff, Derek Jacobi as Henry V or McKellen as Sir Toby Belch. Which just shows how wrong you can be: in 1978, McKellen played Sir Toby in an RSC tour.

So, although this is the World Championship of Acting, versatility is still demanded. You may be good on clay and hard surface but you've got to be able to compete on grass if you want to go all the way. For the RSC alone, as well as Sir Toby, McKellen has clocked up Romeo, Leontes, Macbeth and Iago while Jacobi has given us Benedick, Macbeth, Prospero and both Richards, so there is always a wide range required. Sher has now reeled in Macbeth, Leontes, Shylock, Richard III and Titus Andronicus.

Yet the range will ultimately always be at the mercy of current tastes. And it's that sly, almost sarcastic undertow of Sher's which reveals what today's audiences want: a little knowingness, an imbued sense of irony even in the most tragic moments, that subtext of "Maybe He's Just Having Us On ... Isn't He?". So Iago and Richard III become especially favoured roles, with Winter's Tale's Leontes unexpectedly making the cut alongside Macbeth (now revealed as an unexpectedly comic play, and not just because of Peter O'Toole). It is as though nowadays the need for even a little humour has won out over the resolutely big tragic figures.

Which is why Kenneth Branagh is not often talked about in this league. Although a sensational actor, he is almost carved from the old-fashioned Gielgud/Olivier mould, a big romantic player. Or maybe further back in time, back to the big Victorians like Irving and Kean and Macready. Look at Branagh's RSC performances and you find he's chosen Henry V, King of Navarre (from Love's Labour's Lost) and Hamlet. He liked them so much, he filmed them.

Which is his other problem if he wants to enter this title race. It's about stage acting. Filmed Shakespeare just doesn't count. Is this because the film is always bigger than the individual performance? Or is it because it is the live experience, the I-Was-There sensation which makes these great, art-as-sport occasions zing. If it's a film, no one was ever There. But last night in Stratford-upon-Avon, there were a select few present to see the crowning of a new Greatest Living Shakespearean Actor.