Sir Antony Sher, the legendary Shakespearean stage actor, passed away on 2 December last year, aged 72, following a terminal cancer diagnosis.
The revered South-African-born gay actor’s death has been mourned throughout the theatre community, with the Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren calling Sher a “great actor” from the very moment they met in the 1970s, and saying she was “devastated”.
Harvey Fierstein, who had directed Sher in an Olivier Award-winning performance as a drag queen in Torch Song Trilogy, ended his tribute simply with “Poorer us”.
Upon receiving said award, Sher, who was not out as gay at the time – it was 1985 – said, “I’m very happy to be the first actor to win an award for playing both a king and a queen,” referring to his first Olivier Award, which he received for playing Richard III earlier that year.
Sher would go on to win another best actor Olivier Award for his role in Stanley in 1997, along with a string of other notable acting awards. He was bestowed a knighthood for services to the theatre in the year 2000.
Indeed, it was Richard III that really established Sher as one of the great modern classical actors. Sher’s Richard was entirely different from anything performed before, and saw the actor adeptly navigate the stage on crutches, drawing attention to the character’s disability, as well as to his conniving nature, and quite literally depicting the character description in the play, which refers to Richard III as a “bottled spider”.
Aside from being an acclaimed stage actor, Sher also played on the big and small screen, and published a number of non-fiction books and novels. His book, Year of the Mad King was awarded the Theatre Book Prize by the Society for Theatre Research in 2018. Sher was also an avid painter.
Sher, who was born and raised in Cape Town, moved to the UK at the age of 19 in order to pursue a stage career, inspired especially by Laurence Olivier’s performance as Othello in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
He met his husband, Gregory Doran, a few years after joining the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1982, and Doran went on to direct Sher in a great many plays. The couple became one of the first to get a civil partnership when it became legal to do so in the UK in 2005, and got married a decade later.
Marking 50 years of gay liberation in the UK in 2017, Sher told The Guardian, “You have simply got to be honest. As an actor, I thought: if I am not going to be truthful about myself, how can I be truthful about playing other characters? If you don’t come out, you are going to have a very miserable life of secrecy. In Wilde’s England, homosexuality was the love that dare not speak its name. In the South Africa I grew up in, it was a love that did not even have a name.”
Antony Sher’s remarkable and extraordinarily sincere and truthful presence on stage will be sorely missed.