Antony Sher had to confront his prejudices as he helped relaunch a major British theatre in An Enemy of The People at the Sheffield Crucible.
By Alastair Sooke
Telegraph: 26 Jan 2010
Antony Sher shuffles into a smart London wine bar and peers uncertainly into the gloom. His beard is unruly, his shoulders hunched, and he emanates a down-at-heel, seemingly haunted air. This isn’t how I imagined one of Britain’s most respected classical actors.
He beetles over to our table, orders a bottle of Chablis, and looks plaintively at me through round, rimless spectacles. It’s strange: he’s barely spoken a word, but he comes across immediately as sensitive, even vulnerable. As we talk, it becomes clear that he’s not afraid to open up.
Sher, now 60, is about to play Dr Thomas Stockmann, the headstrong hero of Ibsen’s 1882 drama An Enemy of the People. The play will be the inaugural production of Daniel Evans’s tenure as artistic director of the Sheffield Theatres, following a £15.3 million redevelopment programme.
Over the years, Sher has tackled many of the meatiest roles in the canon, winning an Olivier Award for his venomous, spider-like Richard III, scuttling about the stage on crutches, in 1984. Last year, his Prospero, in a scorching production of The Tempest for the RSC, inspired by African folklore, received tumultuous acclaim. But, noticeably, he has never attempted Ibsen. Why not?
“I thought he was not to my taste,” Sher tells me. “I thought he was too solemn, and I like comedy to live alongside tragedy. But, interestingly, when Ibsen finished this play, he was very excited. He wrote to someone and said, ‘The only problem is I don’t know whether to call it a drama or a comedy.’”
The action is triggered when Stockmann, a free-thinking doctor in a small Norwegian coastal spa town, receives a laboratory report that confirms his long-held suspicions: the water supply of the expensive new public baths is contaminated by toxic bacteria.
“The baths are poisoned,” Stockmann tells his brother, the town’s mayor. But the mayor doesn’t want the news to leak out for fear that tourists will start to avoid the town. Before long, he turns public opinion against his brother, who is castigated as a “folkefiende”, or enemy of the people.
“Peter Benchley borrowed the plot for his book Jaws,” says Sher, referring to the source of Steven Spielberg’s Seventies blockbuster. “Small coastal town, threatened by danger in the water. In Jaws, it’s a shark. In Ibsen’s version, it’s a health spa and there’s contamination in the water.”
The premise sounds enthralling, but not especially funny. Why did Ibsen think that he had produced a comedy? “There’s a dark humour,” says Sher. “It becomes quite Kafkaesque – one man awake in a nightmare world, knowing he’s right, yet nothing’s going to be done.”
Rehearsing the play has prompted Sher to change his mind about Ibsen. “My prejudice against him has been completely overturned,” he says. “When the play was first published in 1882, one of the reviewers said that only Ibsen could grip an audience’s attention with a debate about a drainage system. It’s pretty good going.”
Has Sher also warmed to the role of Stockmann? “Yes,” he tells me, frankly. “He’s an outsider. I’m an outsider. I’m always very proud of belonging to three minorities: gay, Jewish, white South African. I love playing outsiders, I always do.”
Since he moved to England to attend drama school, aged 19, in 1968, Sher has never quite shaken the sensation of not fitting in. Time and again, he has chosen to portray dark, difficult characters, such as Richard III, Iago and Macbeth.
“We’ve all got darkness inside us,” Sher says. “And I’ve got quite a lot of darkness. I’ve had my problems in terms of acknowledging and celebrating my own identity, instead of being terrified of it, as I was. I kept trying not to be gay – it was so foreign to my upbringing [he is now in a civil partnership with RSC associate director Gregory Doran]. And I had a cocaine dependency, which was a very dangerous and crazy time. I was on coke for 20 years. For the last seven years, it had become a habit.” (The next day, Sher leaves a message on my mobile phone, telling me that he has been clean for 13 years – “which I’m rather proud about”.)
“I’ve been very lucky that I do a job where I can get some of that s— out on stage, rather than in my ordinary life,” he continues. “It’s very cathartic to scream and shout and murder people on stage. It’s much better doing it on stage than in real life.”
Throughout our conversation, Sher is incredibly candid – almost compulsively so. “The whole of my acting career is a bit of a mystery to me,” he says. “When I arrived in this country, classical actors were tall, handsome, very Christian, very British. Olivier, Gielgud, Redgrave, Richardson: there was a type. And I was short, dark, funny-looking.”
For several years, Sher has undergone psychotherapy. “Therapy is all about becoming content with who you are, not necessarily changing it, but being at peace with yourself. It should be the natural human state, but it isn’t.”
This, I suggest, is what An Enemy of the People is about: Ibsen understood that society’s strictures can force people to behave in ways that run counter to their nature. At one point, Stockmann feels like a “free spirit” squeezed in a “vice”.
“Obviously, because I’m someone who’s done a lot of therapy, I’m interested in Ibsen’s own troubled childhood,” responds Sher. “He was tiny, only 5ft 2in. He must have grown up with terrible self-consciousness about being small. And all his life, this great man wore shoes with heels and tall top hats. In photographs, you can see he brushes his hair into a pile so that he’s a bit taller. These basic things are what make people who they are.”
And, with that, Sher wanders off into the cold night air.
- ‘An Enemy of the People’ begins previews at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre (0114 249 6000) on Feb 11