There's this thing Antony Sher does with his eyes. He expresses surprise, dismay, consternation, fear, dislike, suspicion and howling guilt, all at the same time, by just switching them on. It's as if a weird, nasty light has gone on inside him and is emitting laser-streams of evil through the holes in the front of his skull.
It happens in Macbeth when the third witch tells Macbeth that he will "be king hereafter". A fantastic, pivotal moment. Sher/Macbeth stands rooted to the spot as horrible imaginings scurry across his face and a few disabling vestiges of decency fight a losing battle with his pitiless ambition. The audience at the Young Vic shifts nervously in its seats under Sher's demented gaze. You can feel the third Weird Sister briefly wondering if she should find a job where you get to meet less alarming people.
Sher is Britain's most intelligently villainous actor. His gaunt face, his darkly glittering eyes, the widow's peak that arrows across his head like the black cap of a hanging judge, the sense of packed energy that hums from his short and muscly frame do not suggest a romantic lead or Restoration comedy charmer. Meeting him at the Young Vic, out of his commando gear and his blood-soaked robes, he is a slighter figure (his mad glittering eyes turned down, as it were, to low simmer) and an intensely physical presence. He moves about on trainers as if interrupted in some gruelling gym exercise; his hands steal over his head, arms and knees while talking, as though comforting themselves. He is thoughtful, sociable and patient but rather keen, you suspect, to get back to work, back into the immersion-tank of evil where he's spent most of his acting life.
His most memorable roles have been exuberantly wicked Bad Guys: Richard III, scuttling across the stage on crutches like a homicidal tarantula; his Howard Kirk, the sneery, slimy, right-on academic lecher in the TV version of Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man; the farcical strutting dictator Arturo Ui, the jealous-to-an-unhinged-degree Leontes in The Winter's Tale, the blood-bolstered duo Titus Andronicus and Tamburlaine the Great... Occasionally, to confuse the critics, Sher has done a sideline in pathos, playing the put-upon, the marginal, the victimised (like his Arab car salesman Muhammad in Mike Leigh's Goosepimples), and he can do you a fine, chortling Disraeli (as he did in Mrs Brown) without breaking sweat.
But villains are meat and drink to him. He brings them alive, invests them with vitality and sorrow, and gives you the whole man, so that the Macbeth who starts the play bulging with gung-ho triumphalism on the shoulders of his soldierly mates is still recognisable inside the shrunken figure at the end, pathetically clutching his redundant crown and sword to him like plastic toys.
"Macbeth is the hardest thing I've ever done," he says. "Every step you take is dangerous because it invites you to be over the top, or silly or hysterical. All the elements, supernatural horror, murder, witches, blood, the Hammer Horror movie stuff, it tempts you to say, 'Oh come on then, pour buckets of blood over my head', like a notorious production down the road once did. And if you don't do it that way, how do you do it?".
The answer, it turns out, is you make it a two-hander. Sher's on-stage relationship with Lady Macbeth, played by Harriet Walter, is a marvel of subtle contradictions, a tangled skein of attraction, repulsion, sexual tension, emotional blackmail and helpless tenderness, like the scene when Lady M sponges the blood and mud of the battlefield from her tired husband's face, cleansing him into becoming a usurping killer. "It's a really deep, soaked-in relationship," said Sher, "it changes line by line. Sex comes into it then goes, aggression comes and goes, they laugh together unexpectedly, they say the same things and echo each other when they're apart. The difference is that she doesn't have imagination. And imagination is the essence of Macbeth, this beautiful and grotesque thing, the pictures it keeps showing him."
Which Sher knows all about. While preparing for the part, he took the remarkable step of talking to two murderers about what they'd done.
"I met them separately. Both had served a prison sentence for stabbing someone to death. One was a real hard case. You felt that if he'd got away with the murder, it wouldn't have bothered him. The other man, though, was very ordinary, and had stabbed his best friend. He talked about how, on the day of the murder, he'd half-decided to do it, then put it out of his mind until the minute when he began to stab him. As he was doing it, the friend said, 'I don't want to die', and it was like the murderer woke up and realised what was happening. He walked to the door, stood in the threshold, and was going to call an ambulance. Then he thought, no I can't get an ambulance, went back to his victim and finished him off." (Though Sher doesn't mention it, Macbeth's speech, "I am in blood/Stepp'd so far..." is playing in both our heads.) "He was extraordinary," Sher recalled quietly. "Like meeting someone who's missing a layer of skin, so that any breeze, any touch, would hurt him. A raw man."
Did Sher ask about their dreams? "Yes, I said, 'Do you have nightmares?' and they both said the same thing - 'Only when I'm awake'. They could be talking to someone, as we're sitting here talking, and the man they killed would appear - not all bloody or spooky, but rather compassionate - and would sit with them." Banquo!
The end of the RSC run at the Young Vic will represent a time of taking stock for Sher. At 50, he has been with Britain's top drama company for 27 years and now, after three major roles - Cyrano, Leontes and the sanguinary Thane - has no immediate projects. No films, no books (he has published four novels to great acclaim), no stage work. Instead, he's writing the screenplay of his novel Cheap Lives for a small South African film company. I was surprised to hear there was a South African film industry. "There isn't," he said, "but there should be. It could be like the Australian film industry 20 years ago, when they suddenly discovered there were all these dramatic stories to tell. Well, South Africa has a pretty dramatic history and fantastic stories to be told. People who film there now tend to bring in British or American actors, so the whole thing has a rather inauthentic feel."
The subject of authenticity has been preying on Sher's mind since he first set foot in England in 1968, aged 18. He grew up in Sea Point outside Cape Town, "a nice beach-front suburb, quite Jewish". His father was a successful businessman and the four Sher siblings were comfortably off, but young Antony didn't fit in. "I was interested in the arts, and everyone else was interested in playing sports. And I was sensing I was gay, and you can imagine how repressed that made you in such a conservative culture. So I led the life of a lonely child within a very noisy big Jewish family."
Were the Shers strictly orthodox? His eyes seem to grow sharper (uh-oh). "We practised Judaism the way we voted for the Nationalist government. We simply accepted what was going on. The beaches of Sea Point overlook Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned - but you just bask in the sun and you don't see it, just as you don't see the townships on the road from the airport. It's sociologically interesting, though scary, that you can be inside an evil system and be somehow unaware of it."
So he got out. In England, a nasty surprise greeted him. Sher discovered that being a young, white, middle-class, unradicalised South African didn't go down well with young Londoners. "I didn't want to be thought of as part of the system so I lost my accent even before I got to Rada. I went into assorted closets about everything - being gay, being Jewish, being South African. I cornered the market in minorities. I didn't want to be any of these things - but by being an actor you could pursue other identities."
Half a lifetime later, Sher's impassioned discourse offers several clues as to why he's good at playing villains: he's a connoisseur of thoughtless cruelty, the capacity to condone wrongdoing, the smooth bourgeois sheen that represses awkward desires. He felt an outsider from childhood, one who had to conceal his sexual identity in Cape Town and shed his national identity in London. No wonder he grew up entranced by art, stage costume, masks and dressing-up.
He made peace with the republic a decade ago, when he visited Cape Town and staged Titus Andronicus with Greg Doran, his long-term partner and the director of Macbeth. Today his talk is full of collaboration and harmony and realism: "What's happening in Zimbabwe could of course happen in South Africa, because an angry, deprived majority of people still see a tiny minority living luxurious lives. But in South Africa, a miracle has unmistakably happened".
He is looking forward to an invigorating future. "Eventually you have to embrace, to celebrate almost, who you are," he says with regal portentousness. "You can't be a good actor unless you start playing from within yourself. This has been a long process, a long journey for me to know all this." Ah, if only the Scottish king had been so fortunate.Reuse content