No matter the role, Antony Sher made the soar possible

Watching Antony Sher on stage was an extraordinarily visceral experience. British South African-born stage star Sher, who died on Thurs...


Watching Antony Sher on stage was an extraordinarily visceral experience. British South African-born stage star Sher, who died on Thursday at age 72, made you to feel its performance at a level few other players reach.

I am not talking about an emotional reaction here, or not only. I mean a physical response, the kind that registers in your muscles, your stomach, your bones. A small 5-foot-6, Sher was not, by conventional measures, a naturally imposing presence.

Yet the concentration and physiological specificity with which he embodied characters, from power-hungry medieval monarchs to the sensualist painter of the 20th century, made you tense in anatomical empathy. After watching a performance of Sher, I often throbbed with the pain that follows a rigorous run over rough terrain. I was even tempted to check my body for bruises.

After seeing him in the title role of “Primo”, on Broadway in 2005, I found myself walking cautiously as I left the theater and imagined that I could feel the other members of the audience doing the same. In this individual work, adapted by Sher from ‘Si c’est un homme’, the memoir of the great writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, the actor gave tangible form to the unspeakable legacy of camp life. of concentration, at most how he walked through a scene.

Every step he took had a stiffness and suspicion that evoked months of existence as a human beast of burden in shoes that never fit him. The simplest daily movements have become an affirmation of will over the tidal wave of both a terrifying memory and an abused body. And you knew, gut-level, that the six-number tattoo engraved on his arm was only the most superficial emblem of how this man had been scrawled by inhuman hands.

This feeling of struggling and overcoming the limits of the fallible human form was spectacularly evident in the performance that made him a star: Shakespeare’s Richard III. For this 1984 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, he consulted orthopedic surgeons to understand the exact nature of Richard III’s physical disabilities.

The resulting portrait was that of the “bottled spider,” the “round-backed toad” as a man who had taken a full inventory of his body’s limitations and turned perceived weaknesses into weapons. With crutches, he moved faster and with more force than anyone else on stage, and you were never aware of the exhausting energy required. (Sher’s transformation process into Richard is documented in his 1985 book, “The Year of the King,” a top-notch analysis of the creation of a role by an actor.)

I regret having missed his Lear, some three decades later. But I cherish my memories of his Macbeth, made for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Sher’s partner (and future husband) Gregory Doran, who came to the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, in 2000, with the wonderful Harriet Walter as the thane’s murderous wife. Unlike Richard III, Macbeth was an able-bodied, rather ordinary-looking soldier.

But the gap between a mortal body and the spirit that would transcend it was still stirring evidence. At one point, Macbeth speaks, almost derisively, of her “fluttering ambition, which pounces on itself and falls on the other …”

And Sher’s Macbeth was imbued with a sense of ambition stretching fervently to make its possessor smarter, nobler, taller than he actually was. His body, in this case, seemed to be really swelling and getting bigger. He looked hot, feverish or on fire; the gleam in his eyes was frightening. In the end, the fire had turned into something dead and ashes, and Macbeth had become an easily defeated foe.

Three years earlier I had seen him on Broadway as British painter Stanley Spencer, an artist who focused on the spirit in the palpable flesh and whose often biblical figures were rendered with earthy fruitfulness. In “Stanley” by Pam Gems Sher almost looked in the air, a galloping pixie of a man who never walked when he could jump. But even as he did his best to defy gravity, there was no doubt that Stanley’s ecstatic energy had its source in the carnal, the bodily, the animal, with a painful awareness that stems from the path. of all flesh.

Another character in the play describes Spencer’s art in these terms: “He paints people trapped, so to speak, in their own flesh, nailed to the ground, and yet they seek to fly away and he makes that happen if possible.” . “

It is also an epitaph worthy of Mr. Sher. On stage, he really flew away. That you felt, so completely, the effort required for a human body to take flight, made you all the more amazed at the accomplishment.

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Newsrust - US Top News: No matter the role, Antony Sher made the soar possible
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