His latest endeavour, Woza Shakespeare!, is a fascinating account of the trials and tribulations behind what turned into a triumphant South African production of Shakespeare's bloodiest tragedy, Titus Andronicus. But this is no run-of-the-mill backstage story. The book is co-written by Gregory Doran, a former actor, who, in addition to directing Titus, has for the past nine years shared his life with Sher. They are a gay couple and they have never talked about it so openly before. Is this news?
Funnily enough, yes. Theatre and showbiz are full of self-confessed heterosexual celebrity duos, from Prunella Scales and Timothy West to Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley. But out gay couples are distinctly thin on the ground. The likes of Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger can flirt with the paparazzi to their hearts' content. The gains for a gay couple unlikely ever to grace the cover of OK! are harder to discern, and for Sher and Doran, their joint coming-out has been a long process.
"We took the decision when making African Footsteps a couple of years ago," says Sher, giving Doran a quick eye-check and trying to relax. He is referring to the programme they made about what attracted gay writers such as Bowles, Burroughs and Capote to Morocco. ("Sodom-on-Sea," quips Doran.) As Sher observes in Woza Shakespeare!, "The last time there was any publicity about an Islington gay couple visiting Morocco, it was Orton and Halliwell, which is like an advertisement for heterosexuality by Fred and Rosemary West."
To a degree, making an advertisement is precisely what they are doing now. They're coming clean, but it still isn't easy. Doran is the more effusive of the two, leaning back in his seat, smiling and encouraging his partner, who only gradually lowers his guard. "There are all sorts of media representations of gay people," Sher says, "but you don't see gay couples living together, visiting each other's parents, loving and fighting like other couples."
Promoting an "ordinary lifestyle" they may be, but they are aware that theirs is not an ordinary profession. Most people don't travel to South Africa with the National Theatre to run a series of workshops with the Market Theatre of Johannesburg. As a white South African actor, Sher was an obvious candidate for the initiative, while Doran concedes with a smile that despite a couple of workshops at the National, he was "probably taken along as Mrs Sher".
The infectious energy they found there gave rise to Titus Andronicus, the first fruit of their long-held desire to work together. Their diaries detail everything, from the initial idea to international success on an award-winning tour that took them from Johannesburg to the National, to West Yorkshire Playhouse and on to Spain. The tensions, complications and joys behind the controversial production - Titus makes his entrance via a shopping trolley - are balanced by fascinating backstage stories, such as the bizarre hoax that nearly destroyed the production and the struggle to persuade the theatre that Shakespeare could be released from the confines of official "received pronunciation".
Some of the best material concerns the minutiae of the rehearsal process. Titus Andronicus is often deemed unplayable because of its extremes of violence and cruelty. As Doran points out, most British actors' experience of violence is somewhat second-hand. Placing the play in a South African context, and playing it with a cast whose family and friends were beaten or murdered in the apartheid era, made the text leap into focus.
The book strongly evokes the emotional impact of the production, both in rehearsal and in performance. That emotional immediacy has transformed the way Sher works. Its after-shocks were obvious in his portrayal of Stanley Spencer in Stanley and also in Martin Sherman's forthcoming film, Indian Summer.
Some may attribute this transformation to the release Sher must have felt on coming out. Sher is unconvinced: he took that decision back in 1989, to the relief of many who had seen his earlier work with Gay Sweatshop or his portrayal of the Harvey Fierstein role in Torch Song Trilogy and wondered about his decision to remain in the closet. Sher believes his newfound confidence stems from the intimacy of his working relationship with Doran. He found himself tapping into emotions that previously he would not have dared reach. A particularly vivid section of the book describes Sher's reaction to his father's sudden death. While rehearsing the pivotal scene in which Titus the father is confronted with his dead sons' heads, Doran sees Sher turning into his father. "It was not until months after [his] death that I saw Tony cry for his father, crumpling at the waist, reaching out to clutch me, gulping with sobs. That's what Titus does now. I recognise it." In retrospect, the matter is simple for Sher. "I realise I have never trusted a director enough to risk completely opening myself up before."
Anyone wary of encountering a ceaseless hymn to the impossibly perfect marriage of true minds can take heart. The ghost of gay lyricist Lorenz Hart hovers in the wings: "The lovely lovings and the hateful hates/ The conversations with the flying plates/ I wish I were in love again." Living and working together yielded huge dividends, but there are also juicy incidents of men behaving badly. Claustrophobia led to high tension, climaxing in a flying dinner service and a subsequent morning spent combing the lawn and pool for glass, crockery and cutlery. It sure ain't all sweetness and light.
Taking note of the dangers of too incestuous a working relationship, and dates and diaries permitting, the pair are keen to repeat the exercise. Quite apart from the artistic gains, it means they get to see one another. Whether they will be willing to face the publicity trail again is another matter. But that's the dilemma. You treasure your privacy but want to promote a lifestyle. It's a tightrope walk, but they have no intention of falling offn
`Woza Shakespeare!' is published by Methuen at pounds 16.99. Gregory Doran's production of `Henry VIII' is in preview at the RSC Stratford (box office: 01789 295623).Reuse content