Antony Sher tackles Prospero, in South Africa and Stratford; interview
11th February 2009
Antony Sher talks about playing Prospero; first published in the Daily Telegraph, Feb 11, 2009.
At the Baxter Theatre, set beside Cape Town’s tranquil university campus, Sir Antony Sher is looking relaxed and not a little tanned. “I feel happy,” he declares, without any prompting, blinking at me genially through round-rimmed specs. “This is a tremendously satisfying moment of my life.”
Every morning, Sher has been emerging from his seaside apartment to take a bracing plunge in the Atlantic. Every evening, he has been throwing himself into the part of Prospero in a revelatory account of The Tempest, co-produced by the Baxter Theatre Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, that lands the action in a pulsating African setting, bursting with colour, sound and song. It has met with glowing reviews, packed houses and standing ovations.
It’s the kind of lauded homecoming any local boy would wish for. Born in Cape Town in 1949, Sher left for Britain in 1968, going on to become one of our leading classical actors; yet it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that, 40 years on, he’d be able to return with his head held high to lead a South African cast. The first time he starred in a Shakespeare production specially conceived for his homeland, in 1995, in the wake of the country’s rebirth as a democracy, things didn’t go quite so magnificently.
Audiences stayed away in droves from his Africanised Titus Andronicus at the legendary Market Theatre in Johannesburg, despite appreciative reviews. As he recorded in Woza Shakespeare!, his entertaining diary about the experience, co-authored with the director and his partner Gregory Doran: “I feel completely bloody bruised. What the hell happened to my triumphant homecoming? It was exactly like Titus’s. Just one shock after another.”
What is so different about this “African” Tempest? For one thing, according to its director Janice Honeyman – who was a classmate of Sher’s, decades ago – the production has been eight years in the planning. And, even to the most casual eye, that shows. The evening doesn’t just deposit droplets of local detail on the text; it drenches the story in the Cape’s melting-pot mix of cultures and customs, drawing beyond South Africa, as inclination dictates, for inspiration.
The opening storm sequence, which makes visually astounding use of a giant puppet serpent, derives from Zulu cosmology, while the white clay streaking Ariel’s body alludes to Xhosa circumcision ceremonies. There are giant Malian puppets and fertility dolls. The spirits haunting the island that Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan, has made his home bear – with their fierce facial markings and otherworldly ululations – a direct connection to tribal traditions and the belief in the power of ancestors that permeates the continent.
“On the first day of rehearsals, I asked how I should summon Ariel,” Sher recalls, “and about 10 people stood up to say, ‘I’ll show you how to summon the spirits.’ That couldn’t happen in Britain. Doing it this way makes total sense of the magic in the play.”
And total sense, too, of Shakespeare’s prescient engagement with themes of revenge and forgiveness in the context of colonisation. At the climax of the first half, the veteran black South African actor John Kani, playing Prospero’s slave Caliban with a stoical, Mandela-esque dignity, breaks into a toyi-toyi – the freedom dance associated in South Africa with the ANC. As he stamps his feet and raises his crutches in defiance, at a stroke the production confronts its audience not just with spear-shaking spectacle but with the image of a nation struggling to resist racial authoritarianism.
For Sher, the negative debate surrounding Titus Andronicus had much to do with received ideas of how Shakespeare should be spoken: “Shakespeare performances in this country have been quite rare, so perhaps people here have an old-fashioned attitude about the verse needing to be spoken in beautiful British tones.”
That’s an assumption he can empathise with. He considered it necessary to shed his own accent in favour of RP in forging his career in Britain. And yet, with The Tempest, such concerns have melted away as the play has tilted on its axis to bring home the battle between interloping and indigenous forces.
Sher has found the theatrical confrontation with South Africa’s fraught history intensely cathartic. “Both John Kani and I were brought up under Apartheid. Neither Prospero nor Caliban can say anything about the other that isn’t full of rage and hatred. Being able to release all that s— from the past through Shakespeare has been very satisfying.”
Perhaps Honeyman’s most striking directorial intervention comes at the end, when Prospero’s epilogue craving pardon, usually addressed to the audience, is turned towards Caliban. It’s a heart-rending moment, in keeping with the attempts, post-Apartheid, to formalise the difficult business of forgiveness, but Sher is the first to acknowledge it’s as much borne of aspiration as anything.
“It’s going to take a whole generation before South Africa comes to terms with the past,” he says. “As much as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a beautiful gesture, it couldn’t take away all that poison. This country is still very much in the process of healing itself.”