Sir Antony Sher, 1949-2021

4th December 2021

John Wyver writes: It must have been the summer of 2000 when I took a call from Antony Sher’s agent. The actor was coming to the end of nearly a year’s run in Macbeth. The exceptionally well-reviewed production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Gregory Doran, Tony Sher’s partner then, husband later, also featured Harriet Walter giving a fiercely intelligent, compelling Lady Macbeth. (The image of the show above is by Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale © RSC; more via the link in the previous sentence.)

The then minister at DCMS, Chris Smith, had been thrilled by the production, and had recommended to Channel 4’s chief executive Michael Jackson that a television version should be made. Tony’s agent had been guided to me, and to my producing colleague Seb Grant, by another client, who knew what we had managed to do with low-cost screen versions of Richard II, directed by Deborah Warner, and Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Gloriana. Might, the agent enquired, we be interested in helping bring Macbeth to the screen?

There was no time to pull the filming together, and only a very modest budget. To this day I am convinced that the lavish party thrown by Channel 4 to celebrate the success of the the film, and to look forward to future collaborations between the RSC and Channel 4 (which came to nothing), cost more than the film itself. But by basing ourselves at London’s Roundhouse (Seb identified this as a possible location), which had recently been refurbished and had an entirely empty main space, we shot 10 minutes of the finished film each day – and produced what I think remains an exceptional adaptation (which we are delighted to make available as a DVD and as a stream for rental or download).

Seb and my efforts were immensely aided by director of photography Ernie Vincze, who had been a current affairs cameraman on World in Action and the like. Ernie hoisted the heavy Digital Betacam camera onto his shoulder and for twelve days shot almost the whole film in a hand-held verité fashion that remains dynamic and involving. The full cast and other details are here, thanks to Learning on Screen’s invaluable Shakespeare resource.

But of course it was Harriet Walter and Tony Sher who made the film what it is, guided by Greg’s understanding and intelligence, and by the boyish enthusiasm of a director making his first film. Tony was, rightly, amazed, when the budget constraints led Seb and I to suggest he and Greg might travel to the Roundhouse from their home in Islington by bus. (We did, I believe – I hope! – eventually pony up for taxis.) But he was consummately professional, full of excitement, interested in every aspect of what we were doing — and with incredible focus and discipline he turned in a brilliant, dark, tortured performance.

I learned so, so much just from watching him then, and I continued to learn as, much later, my collaboration with Greg led to producing three of our RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts with Tony: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, in which he played Falstaff (2014), and King Lear (2016), his lead performance for which Michael Billington rightly described as ‘unbearably moving’.

From Tony I learned so much too from reading his fascinating books about the craft and process of acting, and from looking with him at his still-too-little-appreciated paintings and drawings. And I learned from every conversation that I enjoyed with him, over a snatched coffee or while enjoying a decent red wine.

Greg and I hoped to make a screen version of their production of Othello, with Tony as a dazzling Iago, but five or so years on from Macbeth, which we really thought showed the way forward for making low-budget Shakespeare for television, we could raise no interest at Channel 4 or the BBC. Even so, it’s extraordinary to think that Tony’s request to his agent that led to the phone call to me led to all of the work that I’ve done with the RSC, with Greg and many other colleagues, across the past two decades. Working with them both has been central to my professional life, and I owe them both so much.

It’s not my intention to try to add to the rich articles that have already been written about Tony’s full career, and many others will doubtless follow. There are many far better qualified than I to hymn his praises and celebrate his skill, his versatility, and his deep understanding of being on stage or in front of a camera. I’ll continue to add further links over the next few days. Read on for the RSC announcement of Tony Sher’s death. There are fine, informed articles by Chris Wiegand and Michael Billington for the Guardian, and Michael Coveney has written the Guardian obituary. I contributed to this RSC compilation of tributes from some of those who worked with Tony.

Producing the four screen productions with Tony, and collaborating closely with Greg on those and many others, I came to count Tony as a friend. He was committed and passionate, a sparkling companion for dinner, and kind, concerned and generous, on stage and off, as few others are. Like so, so many friends and collaborators, as well as so many who were thrilled and delighted and profoundly moved by his acting, I already miss him very much.

Additional links:

• Antony Sher on acting: ‘You have simply got to be honest’: extracts from Tony’s writings and interviews.

• … and a truly lovely Twitter thread from Noma Dumezweni, who is also in the cast of Macbeth:

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