How We Met: Greg Doran & Sir Antony Sher

'The first time we worked together it got so heated he threw a plate and a glass at me'

Greg Doran, 53

After joining the RSC as an actor in 1987, Doran (left in picture) became an assistant director and has since directed more than half the company's canon. Last month, he was named artistic director. He lives in London with his partner, Sir Antony Sher.

We met 25 years ago when I joined the RSC. He was playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and I was given the role of [the gossip-monger] Solanio, duffing up Shylock; I'd spit at him and hit him. I was very impressed by this famous man who had recently got an Olivier [for his Richard III]. On stage he was volcanic, but off stage he was quiet, thoughtful and not terribly outgoing, and maybe that was attractive to me. We started walking out together in Stratford, and fell in love that summer.

It was when he asked me to work on some anti-Apartheid events that I began to understand the world he came from, as a South African. A key moment came for me when I directed him just as Apartheid was coming to an end. We were doing The Merchant of Venice and the South African cultural attaché was there. During the trial scene, Tony grabbed one of the young black actors, brought him to the front, directly in front of the attaché, and shook him while shouting the line, "You have among you many a purchased slave." It was an electric moment.

I was partially politicised because of Tony. Back in 1987 you didn't mention if you were gay, so when he came out it was a very political act. He began writing in the press and whatever the article was about – sexuality or not – he would say, "Me and my partner Greg..." to make it as ordinary as any [straight] writer might. By the time civil partnerships came about, it was clear that we'd [get one] on the very first day we could, so if the press didn't get Elton and David [for a quote] they got Tony and I. It was an important political gesture. For our honeymoon, we went to a famously homophobic regime, Uganda, to go and see mountain gorillas.

For me, Shakespeare is the greatest ever playwright, but Tony always challenges that: there are some plays he thinks are overwritten or underwritten. He'll say, "If you ever do Pericles... I really can't go see that play again," while I'd happily work my way through the canon. He might say man cannot live by bard alone, but I think I probably have.

Sir Antony Sher KBE, 62

After arriving in London from South Africa in the late 1960s, Sher forged a career on stage, joining the RSC in 1982 and winning his first Olivier there for his breakout performance as Richard III.

We met on an RSC production of The Merchant of Venice, in 1987. I was playing Shylock and I noticed this handsome chap who was playing Solanio, so I asked the director who he was. I was in a long-term relationship at the time but it was an open relationship, and an affair began. It became much more than just physical, though – we fell in love.

The first time we worked together as director and actor – in Titus Andronicus, in 1995, we got it all wrong. We'd come home from rehearsals in the evening and carry on discussing our work, and if we disagreed it would get horribly tense. It once got so heated he threw a plate and then a glass at me, and after that we made a rule that we were not allowed to bring work home. We've since done six or seven shows together without incident, though I'm nicely rude to him in rehearsals so the other actors don't feel as though we were some sort of cabal.

It amazes me that he can do the same Shakespeare play again and again yet make it fresh. I'm not a huge fan of The Taming of the Shrew, for example, but his production converted me: it's made not as a man dominating a woman, but as two damaged people who found one another; he made it painful and funny.

I'm hopeless at all things domestic, while Greg's a terrific cook; I blame my past as a white South African who grew up with several servants. He actually introduced my family – a Jewish family – to the Christmas lunch. We'd never held any Christmas festivities growing up in Johannesburg but we had the traditional turkey and all the trimmings, and now they're crazy about it.

We share a love of nature and have been on wonderful safaris in South Africa. Once, a lion was hunting right next to us and for one moment it looked at Greg right in the eyes and I thought, "My god, why bother going after that wildebeest when you could have us?"

When it was announced that Greg was the new artistic director of the RSC I felt enormous pride. The RSC needs a great Shakespearean at its helm, though there is the slight personal worry that I won't see him for the next 10 years, and will end up microwaving meals on my own.

Greg Doran directs the RSC production of 'Written on the Heart' at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2, from 19 April to 21 July (nimaxtheatres.com). Antony Sher is in Nicholas Wright's 'Travelling Light' at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 2 June (nationaltheatre.org.uk)

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