South Africa


Sir Antony Sher: How the prophecy of the cowl came true for a ‘skinny gay Yid from Sea Point’

Sir Antony Sher: How the prophecy of the cowl came true for a ‘skinny gay Yid from Sea Point’
Sir Antony Sher at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on 17 March 2018. (Photo: David Levenson/Getty Images)

South African-born classical stage actor Sir Antony Sher, who died of cancer at the age of 72 this month, had a decades-long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he earned a reputation as one of the world’s great modern Shakespearean actors. Here, Gus Silber shares his own private performance with the legendary thespian.

‘So, how should I address you?” I asked the actor, the skinny gay Yid from Sea Point, as he liked to call himself, as I shook his hand and slid onto my seat at Lola’s in London.

He had only recently been knighted by the Queen for his services to the stage, and I wanted to be sure of the protocol before the interview began. 

“Oh please,” he demurred, peering up through his frameless spectacles, “there’s no need for formalities. Just call me Sir.” 

My encounter with Sir Antony Sher, the great Shakespearean thespian, who has taken his final bow, as they say in the theatre, at the age of 72, lasted only as long as a fish ’n chips lunch at a fancy joint. 

But it has stayed with me, as all encounters with greatness do, in part because it felt like my own private performance.

When the waiter enquired discreetly whether Sir Antony would like vinegar or ketchup with his meal, the actor widened his eyes and said: “Good heavens, no. Why would I want to spoil a perfectly good chip?” Before popping one, naked and steaming, into his mouth. 

And in part, because it revealed to me that Sir Antony was just as flawed, as insecure, as mortal as the rest of us. 

When I suggested, by way of tiny talk, that his family back home must be basking in the glow of his achievements – the triumphant reviews, the Olivier Awards, the knighthood – he went “hmmmm”, delivering the line with narrowed eyes and an air of regal gravitas. 

He told me how his father, Emmanuel Sher, had flown over from Cape Town to watch his boy in his defining role as Richard III at the Old Vic. 

In a stroke of physical acting genius, Sher had equipped the troubled king – “rudely stamp’d, deformed, a bottled spider” – with metal crutches, which he wielded almost as weapons in a performance of staggering intensity. 

At one point in the play, the actor cast his gaze into the front row of the auditorium, where he caught sight of his father, head lolled to the side, mouth wide open, fast asleep in the midst of the high drama and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy.

It was a harsh reminder that even those who occupy the pantheon of the gods can be brought back down to Earth by the silent judgement of a jet-lagged parent. And yet, it came as no real surprise. 

Mannie Sher, as everyone called him, was a hard-drinking hide-and-skin merchant – Antony’s childhood memories were clouded by the interweaving smells of whisky and tanning salts – whose own father, fleeing persecution in Lithuania, had set up shop as a general trader, a “smous”, in the middle of nowhere: Middelpos in the Upper Karoo. 

But if Mannie, at best, was indifferent to his son’s burgeoning creative talents, it was a different story when it came to Ma. As an actor-artist-writer in the making, the young Antony heard the legend of the miracle of his birth, told over and over by his mother, Margery, to anyone who would listen. 

The baby emerged from the womb with a thin membrane, a cowl, wrapped around its head. To ease the mother’s fears, the doctor told her: “Mrs Sher, you’ve just given birth to a great man.” 

Sir Antony Sher at the National Theatre in London on 2 November 2013. (Photo: Ben A Pruchnie/Getty Images)


It was nothing but an old midwive’s tale, but the prophecy would weigh heavily on Anthony’s head, setting him up for disappointment rather than greatness. As much as his mother lavished love and praise on him, he felt that he could never live up to his father’s expectations. He felt tortured too, he told me, by the thought that he was competing with his father for his mother’s affections. “I cannot begin to imagine what that must feel like, for a parent,” he said. He would later spend years in psychotherapy, with bouts in rehab for his addiction to cocaine, eventually submitting to hypnosis in a bid to clear the phone-number of his dealer from his brain. But he found his true catharsis in his art.

He once painted a work called The Male Line, in which the recurring subject was himself, first as a mewling infant, then as a gangly schoolkid in running vest and shorts, then as a jowly, naked adult, scratching his head in bewilderment. 

On the far side of the frame we see his father, in pyjamas, and his grandfather, in top hat and tails. But the real message was in the medium. “Oil, cocaine, and my dead father’s ashes.” 

Towards the end – Mannie died in a hotel room in Herzliya, Israel, shortly after watching his son performing “Now is the winter of our discontent” at a fundraising reception at Buckingham Palace – the two Shers enjoyed a more cordial, easygoing relationship. At the time, he was much more bothered by the Queen. 

When he was introduced to her as “one of our leading Shakespearean actors, Your Majesty”, she shot what he took to be a withering glance, and said, in a voice that could cut glass: “Oh, are you?” 

He felt again, as he had throughout his career, that he was an imposter, a trespasser, a skinny gay Yid from Sea Point, who had wandered onto the wrong stage by mistake.

When he left home to try his luck in London, he failed his audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and was told it would be decades before he was good enough to act. He sought refuge in denial, plastering clipped Hampstead vowels over his thick Boerejood accent, and getting married, briefly, to a woman with the wonderful name of Jo Jelly. 

When he finally landed a role on the West End, it was as Ringo Starr, the most Jewish-looking of The Beatles. But for Sir Antony Sher, the prophecy of the cowl did come true.

Even so, he would temper the effusive praise of the world’s toughest critics by kvetching that he never was offered the quintessential Shakespearean role of Hamlet, because, as everyone knows, the Prince of Denmark is tall, blond and good-looking, albeit with serious daddy issues.

“What utter bollocks,” Sir Antony spluttered. He made his mark by playing the Ugly Ones: Richard III, Shylock, Cyrano, Titus Andronicus, that Scottish King in the play that actors never mention by name. He took on their bodies, and he found their souls.

Acting is the art of revealing yourself by pretending to be somebody else, and Sir Antony’s greatest gift was his ability, for a couple of hours in the dark, to make the rest of us feel that we were dreaming the same dream, and that we were soaring to the heavens in the company of greatness. DM

See announcements of sir Antony’s death: the BBC here, and The Guardian here.

Gus Silber is a journalist, author and digital technology fetishist, based in Johannesburg. He holds a Master of Arts in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes. His thesis was on the ways in which Boomers and Millennials, living in the same family households, consume and share news. He considers himself a Boomerllenial.

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