INTERVIEW: Sir Antony Sher on acting, writing and art

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Sir Antony Sher and his husband, RSC artistic director Greg Doran, at the opening of the Mad King/Fat Knight exhibition in May Photo: RSC. Artwork photos: Stewart Hemley, artwork (c) Antony Sher.

Sir Antony Sher talks to Gill Sutherland about playing Lear, his art and writing, as his new book Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries is published, and an exhibition of his art is ongoing the theatre’s PACCAR Room.

On a beautifully sunny May afternoon, Antony and I meet in a shady nook in the beer garden of favoured thespian haunt, The Dirty Duck. As he sips his Pinot Grigio (one of the actor’s favourite tipples) and I my G&T, conversation is easy. Having witnessed his tremendous energy onstage, he’s perhaps slower and quieter than one might expect in real life. During our recorded interview he pauses to carefully digest questions before feeding back thoughtful answers. On relistening to it, I’m amazed to hear there are no ‘ums’, ‘errs’ or deviations just a charming steady honesty…

In Mad King you describe the shaping of Lear which seems to emerge as you draw and paint yourself as him — do the two go hand in hand for you? Is that how you’ve always worked, as a visual artist as well as an actor?

“I think the sketching and drawing simply helps put an image on paper of what I might look like, but also how the characters feels. Sometimes the drawings aren’t necessarily accurate in terms of resemblance… It’s simply that complicated thing of groping towards a character and the drawing helping just to say ‘is that what he’s like?’. It’s just something that I have at my disposal that I kind of use, but not exclusively.”

I was struck by your Prince Philip drawing [in the book and exhibition] which was a partial inspiration for your Lear, there’s an essence of something dark there…

“It’s based on a photo and when Greg [Doran, who directed Lear and is Antony’s husband] and I saw that image we said ‘this is the first scene of the play’. Because Lear’s talking about the burden of monarchy and although Prince Philip is only a consul, you can so feel the burden of monarchy in that image: this big uncomfortable uniform, hard throne, sitting there through a ceremony that’s going to last several hours. It became a really useful way of thinking about what Lear is hoping to shred, to have a wild old time in retirement — it doesn’t work out like that of course, but that’s what he’s up against.”

Self-portrait as King Lear.

Can you imagine your characterisation process without your visual aids?

“Yes. In fact when I did Macbeth I realised only after we opened that there was not a single sketch in my script. It was something about Macbeth’s mind that is so important. He’s a man that never stops thinking or watching himself… and somehow I got caught up in that.”

Is making art a lifelong thing, a constant presence?

“My mother says I would lie on the bedroom floor sketching age four… and I was always going to go to art school as a kid and then somehow it turned to drama, so it’s been absolutely part of my life.”

Have you always kept a diary?

“Yes pretty much so, it’s just something that I’ve found helpful to do in ordinary life, never mind when doing a show. The first book happened after an editor at publishers Chatto & Windus asked me back in 1984 if I would like to write a book about the next part I play, and this guy also knew that I sketched and painted and said make it illustrated. Anyway the next part I happened to play was Richard III and so that book was Year of the King [published in 1985], it was just a lucky coincidence that Richard was successful for me. I guess that created a kind of way of doing these books, which I have now repeated.”

Do you do a daily entry and how polished is the writing?

“The diary is just a diary and I do whatever I have time to do, but I like to be regular and catch up if I’m in an intense period of rehearsal and I can’t; then I will jot notes of each day which I write it up afterwards. But then when it comes to turning it into a book I have no shame in saying I use the diaries simply as notes and then write it up as I want to.”

It is very personal — how do you feel about exposing those private moments?

Portrait of Harriet Walter as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman.

“It’s been very much part of my autobiographical writing. If you are going to write an autobiography what’s the point in not being honest, so that’s been my principle… I very much enjoy reading about other people’s lives in all their detail because I think we share what it’s like to be human beings, so I’ve never had any hesitation in writing openly about everything, it is interesting.”

Your relationship with Greg comes across wonderfully. But I wondered how others feel about having their private lives exposed… do you get approval from your family?

“Yes. With certain people, and certainly Greg, I will show them the manuscript and give them the right to change things. So my older brother Randall, who features so much, Greg and my friend Richard Wilson, who has a heart attack during the course of the book, all were given manuscripts. I showed Richard those pages so that he could absolutely say no I don’t want you to write that – but he didn’t. Greg reworded a thing or two but really nothing major.”

There’s a real feeling of mortality in the book, and during the course of it you lose loved ones – your sister and sister-in-law — but does that also come from Lear do you think?

“I think that was absolutely to do with Lear. At the centre of this play is that extraordinary exchange between Gloucester and Lear; with Gloucester saying ‘Let me kiss that hand’ and Lear saying ‘Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality’, which really goes deep into you. So doing a play that has that at its heart you couldn’t help noticing moments of mortality that happened during the period. And it’s not just my family members, but Roger Rees, Alan Rickman and Alan Howard… a whole series of people passed away during that time; and each time you see what Lear is talking about.”

Your portraits of people are also very exposing. There’s a lovely bit in the book when Greg is talking about your very raw depiction of Harriet Walter as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, and he says ‘she won’t like’! How do your subjects tend to react?

“People don’t like my portraits of them. My style is not flattering, so that’s all right. There’s one of Richard Wilson in there that he commissioned, but I’m not sure he was overjoyed when I presented it. Yes, he paid for it and owns it and hangs it in his house — although it is currently in the exhibition.

“What would you want if an artist painted you, would you be flattered or would you want to see something else?”

Well I think they’re amazing — so yes go ahead and do a reverse Dorian Gray on me! The one of David Troughton as Gloucester with his eyes gouged out is also shocking…

“Well, yes the one of David has the excuse of being in the style of Francis Bacon.

“I don’t know if Harriet has seen her portrait, she’s not reacted to it. It doesn’t matter to me as such… there’s something about her acting that has a special quality that moves me very much, and it is to do with the slightly harrowing, very raw way she plays characters. I’m so inspired by that that I want to put it down as a picture and if she doesn’t like it, it’s sort of separate to what I’m trying to do — until she comes and slashes it with a knife at the exhibition!”

The exhibition is raising funds for the Stitch in Time campaign, which is great, but reading in the book about what a torturous process creating them can be, I wondered if selling them is a bit like letting your babies go?

“It is a bit. It’s a strange feeling, sometimes it’s kind of liberating, because both our homes in London and Stratford are so packed with pictures, it’s quite good to think of them going to a good home somewhere.”

I meant to pick you up on how you describe yourself as an artist: in the book when you talk about Lucian Freud, who is obviously an influence, you describe yourself as a ‘Sunday painter’. Surely you are underselling yourself?!

“I am not a professional artist, but I am a professional actor and I would say writer. I’m thrilled by this exhibition but I haven’t had to live as a professional artist so I would prefer not think of myself in those terms, it seems presumptuous to talk of myself in comparison to those people.”

There are hints in the book that you think you’ve reached the end of your acting career — where are you with that?

“As a classical actor, Shakespeare maps out for your career — less so for female actors — and I’ve been lucky enough to do quite a few of them, and in the end he has three great parts for the older actor, which is Prospero, Falstaff and Lear… so you have to acknowledge that you’ve come to the end of what he has to offer. And since my career has been mainly doing him I don’t really know what’s next.”

Is it a case of wanting to go out on a high or that it feels like a journey’s end?

“It feels like it’s come to a natural end with Lear. I think I would be OK just painting away in my studio… [there is the briefest of pauses] actually I probably wouldn’t, as much as I moan about it in the book I would miss acting.”

The book has real human insight, and what struck me were your own jagged contradictions, there’s a kind of heaviness then uplifting moments. How would you describe your outlook on life?

“Oh it’s entirely to do with my star sign — I’m Geminian, so I’m allowed two completely contrasting views of everything, so I have both sides: the light and the dark.”

Where and when: Year of the Mad King: The Lear Diaries is out now and on sale at the RSC. The Mad King/Fat Knight exhibition of Sir Antony’s drawings and paintings is on at the RSC’s PACCAR Room until 23rd September; entrance is free.