RSC artists pay their tributes to Sir Antony Sher, who died this week.

John Kani, Actor and Playwright

Both Tony Sher and I were born when our country South Africa was the worst place a child could be born let alone to be raised by parents who worked very hard to prepare their children for a difficult future - Apartheid South Africa. By the Grace his God and my Ancestors, like Romeo and Juliet, we found each other in 1973. We travelled together as compatriots, comrades in the struggle for a better South Africa, as fellow artists and we both had the honour of celebrating together twenty-five years of South Africa’s Democracy in my latest play Kunene and the King. I am at peace with you my friend and myself.  Exit my King.

Your Brother

Thelma Holt, RSC Associate Producer

As Shakespeare might well have said, “We shall not look upon his like again.” The irony of the passing of Tony is that the last play we worked on together was John Kani’s Kunene and the King, in which he played a great actor, who had performed King Lear with enormous success, dying of a terminal illness.   A poignant illustration of life imitating art.  Tony will no doubt be completing the run of the play, shorn of its final week in the West End because of the pandemic, albeit without John, when he is in heaven, where he will find lots of unemployed actors.

Alexandra Gilbreath, RSC Associate Artist

The King is dead.
Long live the King.

I can’t believe I’m writing this. Antony Sher. The actor who has inspired generations with his seminal book, The Year of the King, is no more.

The book changed everything, he changed everything. His wit, his legendary preparation, his panache, his verse speaking, his extraordinary ability to hook his toes over the front of the stage and seduce every member of the audience. From Richard III to Cyrano, from Stanley Spencer to King Lear. Kings, queens, poets and misfits. There wasn’t a genre that he couldn’t embrace and redefine. He was one of the most charismatic artists of his generation and I mean Artist. Not just actor, but novelist, painter and poet.

Redoubtable. Fearless. Ingenious.

And we’ll never see his like again. I count myself so incredibly fortunate to have shared many exquisite moments on stage with him and my life will forever be the richer. To the rest of the world he’ll remain Sir Antony Sher but for those of us lucky enough to know and love him, he’ll always be ‘Tones.’

‘O brave new world that has such people in’t.’

Two men dancing on a stage set as a kitchen and living area. John Kani is on the left in a checked shirt and jeans, Antony Sher is on the right in a brown suit
John Kani and Sir Antony Sher in Kunene and the King (2019)
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

Patrick Stewart, RSC Honorary Associate Artist

At the time I first joined the RSC in 1966, I could not have anticipated the impact that Company and its directors, producers, designers, audiences and, especially, its actors would have on me then, all those years ago, and right up to the present day. Two of those have been Greg Doran and Antony Sher. For Greg I played Mark Antony and King Claudius, but, sadly, I never worked with Tony. I know he would have been inspiring and unique because I saw his work whenever possible; Richard III, Macbeth and especially Shylock. Tony could be terrifying on stage, but often, also very funny. The one aspect that characterised Tony's stage performances for me however, was his humanity. There was a fragile, living, being, behind all those performances, which breathed truth into everything he did. 

I did not know Tony well. I wish I had. But his work will always be inside me, a vivid reminder of why the theatre is so revealing and important in my life.

Professor James Shapiro, former RSC Board Member

From the moment I set first eyes upon his mesmerizing Richard the Third, Tony Sher has profoundly deepened my understanding of Shakespeare. His gifts were extraordinary, and one of the great pleasures of my life has been watching him in the rehearsal room preparing to play King Lear. He was a brilliant actor and an incredibly kind and thoughtful person.  Hamlet put it best: “take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”-

Janet Suzman, RSC Honorary Associate Artist

Tony’s was a ferocious talent. I simply couldn't bear to watch it diminished in its energy and so I am grateful to have seen it at full power. His South African heritage - we share this burden - was only discovered by him quite late in his life, but it surely added to the rich mixture that made him such a magnetic actor. So, unsurprisingly, I recall, amongst his many roles, his ex-Africa Titus Andronicus and his comedically sharp bursts of pain in Kunene and the King most vividly; bookends to a remarkable acting life. I salute my quondam countryman and wish him to go gently into that good night: Hamba gahle, Antony.

John Wyver, RSC Director of Screen Productions

Having admired Tony since his glorious, hideous Howard Kirk forty years ago, and having been privileged to work on four screen adaptations with him, I know Tony to have been a truly great actor, a wonderful writer and painter, a sparkling companion, and the best of husbands to Greg. His generosity, his commitment and his passion were unparalleled, as was his talent.

Joseph Mydell, RSC Actor

After an illustrious career as an actor at the RSC, Antony Sher made his directorial debut with the company, directing Breakfast with Mugabe, by Fraser Grace,  starring Noma Dumezweni, David Rintoul, Chris Obi, and myself in the titular role. Tony’s almost shamanistic exploration of Mugabe’s regime as well as the psychological examination of this dictator helped create an atmosphere of highly charged fear and repression which was palpable from the opening of this approximately one hour, forty-five-minute play. He pushed me to my limits in creating a monster of a character who also exhibited human weaknesses of varying degrees. I’m most grateful to Tony for this experience. I also got to know something about Tony, which was not so obvious: he was almost painfully shy. And when you saw him with his partner, Greg Doran, you realise how protective Greg was of him, and it made you aware of their deep love and mutual respect for each other. Deep love. Deep respect: Exemplified in the relationship of Sir Antony Sher and Greg Doran.

Man in military uniform forcibly embracing a woman in evening dress from behind
Antony Sher and Harriet Walter as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (2001)
Photo by Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale © RSC Browse and license our images

Patsy Rodenburg, Voice Director and former RSC Board Member

One of the reasons Shakespeare is our greatest playwrights is that he asks the actor to meet his courage and exactness in body, heart, mind and spirit. Few actors can meet that invitation. Antony Sher is one of the few that do.

Tony’s forensic mind seeks the truth of every word he utters and then his heart ignites that truth to thrill the audience.  He never stops working on a play and discovering more and more layers in a role.  In this way he transforms himself and the audience performance after performance leaving no one untouched by his presence and artistry.  Antony Sher an exemplary theatre artist, a generous and loving actor and friend and an unforgettable storyteller.

Mark Rylance, Actor

I first saw Tony's work as an actor in the theatre with Mike Leigh and was captivated by his immersion and definition as an actor. In 1982 we both joined the RSC and became friends. I remember his infectious laugh and sense of humour most. His meticulous artwork and visual imagination. He was always most generous and kind to me. A gentleman and devoted man of the theatre. A great loss.

Alex Hassell, RSC Associate Artist

Tony was a craftsperson of the highest degree. I’ve never worked with anyone who so fastidiously considered the minutest of details in giving shape to and filling out the life and soul of a character. His deftness, care and sensitivity to how people expose their complex inner natures in the tiniest accidental ways was profound. As were the levels of empathy, imagination and perception with which he so finely rendered the humanity in those vulnerable, heartbreaking and beautiful creations he gifted the world. He was a kind, lovely man, and a world class artist. I shall miss him greatly.

Adrian Noble, former RSC Artistic Director

There are some actors, a very few, who redefine the art and make us see the world a little differently.
They catalyse our received vision of a text and shift our appreciation of the art form.
They take a blowtorch to our perception of the Shakespearean repertoire, their performances burn on our imagination and a new understanding arises, Phoenix like.
They are not always comfortable to watch. Certainly not always easy to direct. But hugely stimulating to their fellow actors and deeply rewarding to their audience.
They are frequently selfish and ruthless in the pursuit of their vision of a character.
They are driven.
They share their spiritual space with demons.
They are possessed by their character, Dionysiac.
But it is we who are the richer. We who are enlightened.
They leave their footprint in the sand, and when the tide retreats, look, it is still there!
They are special.
This was Tony.

Peter Flannery, RSC Associate Artist

I first became aware of Tony fifty years ago when we were both students in Manchester - though I don't think he was aware of me. I remember a shy young man with a blistering acting talent. It was already clear to us all that we were watching someone with rare ability. I got to know him properly about 20 years later when he played the title role in my play Singer which opened in the Swan Theatre in Stratford towards the end of 1989. The way he rehearsed and performed the part simply astonished me and I was so pleased to become a friend. As I write this I am looking at a wonderful crayon portrait Tony made of himself as Peter Singer, now hanging on the wall near my desk. As so many others will do, I feel the loss of Tony Sher very acutely.

Jasper Britton, RSC Associate Artist

For me, Antony Sher and Greg Doran have embodied everything that makes the RSC the RSC.
Their rigour, discipline, vision, imagination, and that something extra, undefinable. The best I can do is this:
If anyone alive could bring the ancient living spirit of Shakespeare to us all, in the present, so vividly, these two magnificent men have done so.
Their combined bond of Love for each other and the Bard has been inspirational and a guiding light.
My only wish is that I’d witnessed the first two married Knights of the Realm.
Some live on after their passing, forever:
Shakespeare and Sher.
Both immortal.
Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, brave, bold, brilliant Sir Antony 

Nick Hern, Publisher

Tony is a bit of a wonder. A magnetic actor, of course, but also and equally an artist and author. I should know: I published five books by him, and in every case the vivid words were illuminated by equally vivid sketches. Furthermore, he’s a delight to work with: punctilious, of course, but open to and eager for comment and improvement. If only every author were as receptive!

Harriet Walter, RSC Honorary Associate Artist

I first met Tony early in his career and he seemed to be in a perpetual state of wonderment to have arrived in the theatrical Mecca of London from his native South Africa. I don’t think he ever lost that feeling of surprise even when he became part of the heart of that establishment. I think he always felt like an outsider and his outsider’s vision was his strength. 

He had abundant creative energy and protean powers and an almost clinical curiosity about what makes people tick, often using himself as the nearest subject to dissect and applying the same scrupulous observation to himself as he did to the characters he played and the subjects he painted. Whether in his paintings or his book Beside Myself his self-portraits were ruthlessly honest.

On stage he was a powerhouse, bold and uncompromising. Offstage he was surprisingly unassuming, private and unostentatious. He could also be wickedly funny 

When I partnered him in Macbeth and Death of a Salesman, I found him almost embarrassingly generous on stage. 

I so enjoyed working with him and watching him work and feel so sad that I won’t have that pleasure again.

David Edgar, RSC Honorary Associate Artist

Tony was one of a golden generation of character actors who came up through the fringe theatre of the 70s and burst triumphantly on to the country’s main stages a decade later. I was privileged to be part of that emergence, as Tony played the lead in my play Maydays at the Barbican in 1983. In subsequent years I watched in awe as he marched with breathtaking command through the Shakespeare canon. His descriptions of making his crutched Richard III, his Fat Knight and his Mad King, are object lessons in writing about acting, as well as making a major contribution to the history of the institution to which he gave so much. One of his last performances – poignantly, as a dying Shakespearian actor, in John Kani’s Kunene and the King – witty, physically dazzling, emotionally powerful - was among his very best.

Noma Dumezweni, RSC Associate Artist

Three months after reading Year of the King, Antony Sher’s brilliant memoir on acting. I got to work with him. Could NOT believe my luck! Luck is about the angels and moments you get to meet in this life. Actually, Blessings. 

I got called into an audition for Greg Doran - for a play that was already up and running. Finally a call from the RSC after years of hoping and writing letters…  Doran was lovely. Didn’t get the gig. Instead I got a phone call, three months later, to join the final audition for their next production of Macbeth. (Sir) Antony Sher and (Dame) Harriet Walter were playing the happy couple. Greg, directing. 

Of course I would. The three of them oversaw the witches group workshop auditions, Alongside Polly Kemp and Diane Beck - I got the gig. 

Soooooo - to WORK in a place of your dreams. To watch actors be at the top of their skills and still reaching…. Was, to put it mildly a TRIP! I LOVED it ALL - to BE at the RSC in the year of my 30th b’day - BUZZING! 

Gift - I got to watch a determined, creatively challenging, shy, humorous artist. Antony was my beginning in what Shakespearean storytelling could be… Elevating, alongside Harriet, what was possible.  The end of the dinner party that Banquo ’visits’ was devastating. Both of them emotionally sealed/jailed in the making of their ambition.  I would watch from the flys of the Swan Theatre. We created something brilliant. Led by the strong willed, shy, creatively provocative Antony Sher. 

He missed a couple of performances when we played at the Long Wharf theatre in the US. His understudy did a terrific job. When Tony returned, it felt like hearing the heart and words truly anew. Just glorious. I told him so after that gig back - and there was a way he said ‘really?’ that made me aware of his vulnerability. You can be a star/lead actor and be riven with insecurity. That was the first time I heard it from him. He had missed being on the stage for those two days - it got him wobbly, emotionally. And I saw that that shy, humorous, creatively specific human, being an artist. 

Loved, LOVED that gig. THEN, few years later - I got to be an actor in his first directing gig! 

Breakfast with Mugabe - by Fraser Grace. Joseph Mydell was Mugabe, I was his wife Grace and David Rintoul was the psychiatrist in this imagining of a period in Mugabe’s elder life. Of course I was going to say yes to Him! Our shared history of being South Africans with vastly different experiences and as creatives navigating our cultural places in the world.

He was PREPARED! And really nervous! He admitted it. I trusted him immediately for that admission. It really was a joy to make him proud of the work we were creating. And my favourite moment was during rehearsals, he told us all our tells/tricks - rude - and so we dug deeper - Joyous. 

He was a behemoth in my stage acting lifetime. I was grateful that I got to be witness to his artistry. 

Dearest Greg You have both been Blessings in my life. 

This too shall pass... Breathe. 💛

Lucian Msamati, RSC Associate Artist

You’ll never know what it meant to me, meeting you in that cold room at the London Welsh Centre near King’s Cross Station 17 years ago. I was playing it all cool and professional when in actuality I was having a full-on, internal fanboy meltdown. You’ll never know just how much it meant to me a decade or so later, when you came to the dressing room post-show to congratulate me on a job well done. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You will always be a hero to me. Hamba kahle, Nkosi.

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