Gregory Doran: my memories of a life with Antony Sher

We collected together all the manuscripts of his novels, the typescripts of his journals, and stored a lifetime of diaries in a very large case. His artwork is now all catalogued too, from some precociously accomplished biblical scenes drawn as a teenager, to the sketches scribbled in rehearsal, to the portraits and the oil paintings.

The Audience is a huge 6ft x 7ft canvas of an auditorium filled with important people in his life: heroes and villains: Mandela, Tutu, Albie Sachs; as well as monsters (many of whom he played) like Hitler. Artists he idolised: Dalí, Bacon, Hockney, Michelangelo. Actors he admired: Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove, Fiona Shaw, Mark Rylance, Simon Callow, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen. And there, glowering from the canvas, Olivier as Richard III. He called it a dream map of his life. And there are parts he played, too. Arnold the drag queen in Torch Song Trilogy; Singer in Peter Flannery’s play, Stanley in Pam Gems’s play at the NT. Macbeth (with Harriet Walter), Leontes, and Shylock.

Tony was playing Shylock in Bill Alexander’s production of The Merchant of Venice in the 1987 season at Stratford when we first met. Tony gave a volcanic performance, a white heat which I witnessed in close-up every night. I was just a young actor, playing Solanio, and I spent much of my time voiding my rheum on Shylock’s beard, and trying to beat him up with a stick. Until one wet Thursday matinee, when I was clearly (as they say in the business) “phoning it in”. Before I knew it, Shylock had grabbed my stick and was chasing me around the stage.

That taught me a lesson, to be in the moment. One of Tony’s great gifts as an actor was to be completely there, utterly present on stage and thus mesmeric, with the compelling quality of compression, of always having more power held in reserve.

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