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Antony Sher

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Post  eddie Sun Jan 15, 2012 6:32 pm

Antony Sher: 'Painting and writing stop me going crazy'

Antony Sher on why his latest stage role in Nicholas Wright's Travelling Light is reminiscent of his own family's journey

Tim Adams

The Observer, Sunday 15 January 2012

Antony Sher Antony-Sher-007
Antony Sher rehearsing Travelling Light at the National Theatre, London, 29 December 2011: 'I thought: I know about this play.' Photograph: Sonja Horsman

For a long time as a young man, Antony Sher – actor, painter, writer – was at pains to deny who he was. "I was gay. Jewish. A white South African," he says. "And for different reasons, I was ashamed of all those things." As a result, he suggests, the actors he most admired were those who best masked themselves on stage: "Olivier, Peter Sellers, Alec Guinness."

These days, he is more in thrall to the kind of performance that gives you a glimpse into the soul of the actor, lets you in on their true self – "Judi Dench would be the obvious example," he says.

These remarks have been prompted by my observation that Sher seemed to have spent the first half of his life trying to escape the roles he was born to and the second trying to understand them. He agrees up to a point. Curiosity about his own biography is in any case what drew him to take a part in Nicholas Wright's new play, Travelling Light, at the National theatre.

The play, directed by Nicholas Hytner, tells the story of a famous Hollywood director of the 1930s and 40s who looks back at his childhood in an east European shtetl. A couple of generations removed, and an emigrant himself, Sher is still fascinated by that kind of exodus.

"My grandparents all came from Lithuania to South Africa," he says in a break from rehearsing. "My first novel, Middlepost, is a fictional account of that journey. A few years after that was published, I managed to go to the particular village from which my grandparents had come in 1896. It was very moving. I had hoped to find some traces of the Shers but you have to remember that there was something called the Holocaust in between. All of which means, I suppose, that I have an investment in this play. It immediately made this role very attractive to me. I felt, I know about this."

Self-knowledge is extremely important to Sher. He looks for it in different places, in his writing and his painting, as well as his acting. He likes to paint the characters he plays. "I'll make them look how they look in my mind," he says.

For his role in Travelling Light, he would like to be bigger physically, powerful in the shoulders, so he might project that on canvas. There is another purpose to his art, though. "When I am on a long run in a play," he says, "I'm not sure how I would fill the days if I did not paint or write. On a basic level, it just stops me going crazy."
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