At the Prince of Wales’s 50th birthday party at Buckingham Palace, Sir Geoffrey Cass, who was then the chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Company, presented Antony Sher to the Queen. ‘He is one of our leading actors, ma’am,’ Sir Geoffrey whispered into her ear. Her Majesty frowned, paused for a very long time and finally said, ‘Oh, are you?’
A string of words, mercifully unuttered, formed in Sher’s head. ‘No, of course not, Your Majesty, you’ve seen through me. I’m just a little gay Yid from somewhere called Sea Point on the other side of the world. I shouldn’t be here. I don’t know why I am. I am an impostor.’
Only an angry, if not an incandescent, outsider, could have thought in such terms, but nine years on, after a knighthood, a civil partnership, much psychotherapy and, funnily enough, a convivial stay at Sandringham as a house guest of the Queen’s oldest son, Sher seems to have come to an accommodation with himself and with life.
‘I have come to enjoy being an outsider,’ he says. ‘All the anger that I’ve had has actually worked out rather well for me. Certainly I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had without it.’
Sir Antony, who turns 58 this month, is talking to me in his cramped dressing-room at the Apollo Theatre where he is appearing in the title role in Kean. He last appeared on stage two years ago in Primo on Broadway. He had wanted to concentrate on his painting and writing after that, and he had wanted to see, too, if he could get by without acting. He could not.
He feels a particular affinity with the great 19th-century actor. When Sher came to Britain from his native South Africa in 1968, he recalls that all the greatest names in the theatre at the time — Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, et al. — were tall, conventionally handsome and well-spoken. He was short and Jewish and spoke with a South African accent.
‘When I learnt about Kean he gave me great heart because he broke the mould — in his case he was illegitimate, born into semi-poverty and he, too, was short and dark and his voice was not usual. This was someone who defied the rules and, of course, he had, too, his demons.’
Kean sought refuge in alcohol. Sher sought it in cocaine. He had wanted to use the drug, as indeed he had his acting, to escape from himself. There was a time in his life when he felt that he was in a closet about all three of his most defining characteristics — not merely his sexuality, but also his nationality and the faith that he was born into.
His early life in South Africa had been a difficult time. ‘That macho, swaggering outdoor life just wasn’t me. I was not close to my father. He wasn’t really interested in his children, but then he was typical of his generation. I remember Greg, my partner, telling me how, when he was a child, his father would always come to his bedroom to kiss him goodnight. I don’t think my father even knew where my bedroom was.’
He became further alienated from his country and his parents once he had established his home in Britain. ‘I had grown up in a society that was so heavily censored — not just its newspapers, but its books and plays and, of course, there hadn’t been television in those days — I hadn’t been able before to see the apartheid regime for what it was.’
He strained to lose his South African accent. He strained, too, to conceal his sexuality, even to the extent, in his early twenties, of marrying. This detail about his life goes unrecorded in his Who’s Who entry. ‘It was a mistake, obviously. I think she thought — and I wanted to think — that I could be made heterosexual. Maybe there are still people to this day who get into such marriages. She is a choreographer and is now married and happy and we remain friends. I saw her not long ago, actually.’
In the newspaper cuttings there are accounts of some peculiarly agonised conversations which Sher had with journalists when his private life was raised — ‘I keep that a mystery,’ he told the Daily Mail in 1987 — and he recalls now, with a wry grin, how he would always ask his publicist to tell journalists to keep off the subject. ‘It was of course like putting a gigantic neon sign over my head saying, “This guy is gay.”’
Two years after that interview with the Mail, Sher finally ‘came out’. He let the fact slip, somewhat prosaically, in his foreword to Characters, a book of his illustrations. ‘There were pictures of my partner Greg in it and I thought it important to say who he was.’ His announcement precipitated what he called ‘an outbreak of gayness’ in the Sher family. ‘My elder sister came out, too, after 25 years of marriage, and one of my nieces has as well. It clearly was catching.’ His father’s reaction to his sexuality surprised him. ‘My mother had felt that it would be best not to tell him. When he found out, however, his reaction was very loving. It made me see him in a different light.’
Sher used to say that the happiest day of his life was in 1979 when he was granted a British passport and he was able to burn his South African one. Now, he says, that day has been surpassed by 21 December 2005. That was the day he entered into a civil partnership with Gregory Doran, an associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
‘There are hard-line gay activists who say that it isn’t good enough. It is not called a marriage. I don’t care. I can call Greg my next-of-kin and that is what matters.’ I ask him if he feels the battle has been won on gay rights. ‘I think it will be won when people don’t even feel the need to mention it,’ he says. If he has come to terms with his sexuality, he remains ill at ease with his religion. He last visited a synagogue when he was 13. ‘I am uncomfortable with all religions. The certainty of the fundamentalists of all faiths terrifies me.’
His next play is The Giant, an RSC commission which will go on in the autumn about the relationship between Michelangelo and Leonardo when they were in Florence. ‘Greg will direct it. I have written it, but I will not be appearing in it. I don’t think you can do both roles very easily.’
That’s a pity. He is breathtakingly good in Kean. I was struck by how much less emphatic his acting has become since I last saw him on stage when he gave his famously spider-like portrayal of Richard III. His Kean is a lot more natural, with a lot less artifice. ‘Maybe,’ he says, ‘I don’t feel the need to hide quite so much behind the characters I play any more.’
Tim Walker is the theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph.