Born: June 14, 1949;

Died: December 2, 2021.

IN his interviews with the media Sir Antony Sher, who has died of cancer at the age of 72, was always compulsively candid. “We’ve all got darkness inside us,” he told one interviewer in 2010. “And I’ve got quite a lot of darkness. I’ve had my problems in terms of acknowledging and celebrating my own identity, instead of being terrified of it, as I was”.

In the same breath he spoke of the fact that he was gay, and had been a cocaine user for 20 years. “I’ve been very lucky”, he added, “that I do a job where I can get some of that s--- out on stage, rather than in my ordinary life. It’s very cathartic to scream and shout and murder people on stage. It’s much better doing it on stage than in real life”.

In another interview he confessed that he had started life “as a shy, self-hating individual, uncomfortable in his own skin. Acting was an escape from that person”. In others, he spoke of his insecurities.

He was, of course, famous for his portrayal of dark and challenging characters on stage: Macbeth, Iago, Richard III. The latter performance, at the RSC in 1984, electrified audiences, critics and fellow actors alike, as he scuttled around the stage, spider-like, on a pair of black medical crutches. Judi Dench said it was “a vision I’ll never forget”; one London critic wrote that it was “the only one in our lifetime to have challenged the 40-year memory of Olivier in that role”.

The role made Sher's name, and won him an Olivier award the following year.

He was known to research his roles deeply. While preparing to play Macbeth he talked to two men, both of whom had murdered with knives. “In both cases”, he recalled, “they were completely clear, that it needn’t have happened. They were very clear on the detail, one of them describing, for example, how long it takes someone being stabbed to death to die – which was very helpful in my understanding and what I could bring to Macbeth”.

His other landmark stage roles included King Lear in 2016 (he had played The Fool, opposite Michael Gambon’s Lear, in an earlier production); Falstaff in the Henry IV plays; Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman; Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, Iago in Othello, Prospero in The Tempest, and the title roles in Tamburlaine The Great and Cyrano de Bergerac.

One theatre critic noted of his Lear: “First making his entrance borne aloft inside a glass cabinet, he gradually sloughs off the mantle of tyrannous impassivity, conveying his dawning insanity. Sher’s delivery errs towards fusty mannerism, but this ranks as a crowning achievement”.

His National Theatre dramas included a one-man show, Primo, and Uncle Vanya, with Ian McKellen. He won an Olivier award for his performance as a drag queen in Torch Song Trilogy.

Though his film and television career never quite took off, he appeared in a number of movies, among them Mrs Brown (1997, in which he played Benjamin Disraeli) and the Oscar-laden Shakespeare in Love (1998, in which he played a quack psychiatrist, Dr Moth); both were directed by John Madden, and both starred Sher’s friend, Judi Dench. “He was spectacular, the actual epitome of Disraeli ... he could completely immerse himself in a character”, she said of Sher upon news of his death.

Sher wrote a much-praised autobiography (Beside Myself, 2001) and several volumes of theatre diaries; in addition, he was a widely-exhibited artist. There seemed to be no end to his talents, but, in the words of his friend and colleague, Dame Harriet Walter, though he was one of the theatre greats he never acted like it.

She recalled how, when she appeared alongside him in Macbeth, he declined to take a solo bow in the curtain call, insisting instead that she share it with him, as if to say, ‘This has been a play about two people’.

He could be, Walter added, “very jokey, loved a bit of gossip, and was very loyal”.

Antony Sher was born to a Lithuanian-Jewish family in Cape Town in 1949, to Emmanuel Sher, who imported animal hides for a living, and his wife Margery.. He grew up in the suburb of Sea Point.

His artistic skills came to the fore in his early teenage years, and it is said that he briefly considered going to art school in Italy. He also, while in his teens, discovered a passion for the theatre.

He undertook compulsory military service with the South African Defence Force in the desert of Namibia. It was not the happiest of experiences for him. He moved to Britain in 1968, determined to become an actor, but he was rejected by both Rada and the Central School of Speech and Drama before being accepted by the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art.

Success did not arrive overnight, but at length he joined the Liverpool Everyman Theatre, working with a talented crew of writers and actors. His first big break, as Ringo Starr in Willy Russell’s Beatles play, John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert, came when it transferred from the Everyman to the West End.

He became something of a household name with his portrayal of a sex-mad lecturer, Howard Kirk, in a TV adaptation of Malcolm Bradbury’s campus novel, The History Man (1981). He joined the RSC in 1982.

Sher, whose final RSC production was a two-hander, Kunene and The King, is survived by his husband, Gregory Doran, the company’s Artistic Director. They became one of the first gay couples to enter into a civil partnership, in 2005. They were married in 2015. Sher was knighted in 2000.

Despite all the fame and acclaim that came his way, he retained something of his self-deprecating and slightly insecure nature. One well-known anecdote has him being introduced, to the Queen, as “one of our leading actors”. The monarch paused before asking him, “Oh, are you?”

Sher later wrote that he had considered replying to her: “No, of course not, Your Majesty. You’ve seen through me. I’m just a little gay Yid from somewhere called Sea Point on the other side of the world. I shouldn’t be here. I don’t know why I am. I am an impostor.”