Award-winning South African-born actor, writer and painter Antony Sher returns to Stratford this month to play “an old, fat knight”.

Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, parts One and Two, is a comic role he had never really contemplated.

“There was a point when Greg (Doran) first suggested I play Falstaff. I had to think about it long and hard. It’s not a part I had ever thought about playing,” he explains.

“I remember saying to him: ‘I have put on a bit of weight and I have a Knighthood, now is probably the best time’.”

Henry IV parts One and Two are the follow-up to his partner Gregory Doran’s hugely successful Richard II with David Tennant, Michael Pennington, Jane Lapotaire and Oliver Ford Davies at Stratford-upon- Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre. They are part of a new cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays that artistic director Gregory and the RSC will direct over a six year period.

“By collaborating with designers like Stephen Brimson Lewis and composers like Paul Englishby, Greg’s productions always have a beautiful look and beautiful music,” he adds.

We meet at lunchtime in between rehearsals as the 64-year-old grabs a healthy chicken sandwich and fresh orange juice in a dressing room backstage at the atmospheric Courtyard Theatre, currently under renovation.

Sir Antony is looking youthful, in good shape and quietly contemplative – contrary to the larger-than-life character he is playing.

Rehearsing two plays at once is “both great fun and very intense,” he says. “Luckily it’s the same character.”

“What I have liked about all of Greg’s Shakespeare work is that in the beginning the entire company works together through the text and translates it into ordinary English, so the entire company knows the text,” he adds.

The cast also includes Jasper Britton as Henry IV and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal.

Ever since he was 15-year-old teenager growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, Sir Antony has enjoyed experimenting with theatrical disguises – and as Falstaff he wears a padded body suit.

“Falstaff is described as old and fat. I wanted it to be a physical challenge. We have made it look realistic. I am wearing a body suit. It looks as if I have let myself go. We play the whole thing very real.

“I get a sense of various people I have known who are like this.

“I love the fact he is clearly well-loved and is a knight, yet his life has taken him to the point he is working as a thief – a highwayman leading his completely debauched life.

“We have taken his drinking thing quite seriously. We have given it a modern twist. He’s on the bottle 24/7. It’s all quite good stuff and done in a modern way. We didn’t want to play him, as a jolly Father Christmas figure.

“Shakespeare has written such a fascinating, complex man. He deserves all we can give him.”

Antony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I at the RSC
Antony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I at the RSC

Doran has said Henry IV Parts One and Two are two of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

“I do agree with Greg on this point,” says Sir Antony. “Shakespeare in these two plays creates a panoramic picture of England.

“There in the Boar’s Head Tavern you see it all and Shakespeare’s skill in creating that. Falstaff is just this disgraceful reprobate yet as the audience we just care about him.”

As Sir Antony vividly describes in his best-selling frank and moving memoir, Beside Myself, his grandparents escaped anti-Semitic persecution from Plunge, Lithuania, by emigrating to South Africa.

Widely regarded as one of South Africa’s finest actors, Sir Antony first performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company 32 years ago as the Fool to Michael Gambon’s King Lear and is now an RSC associate artist.

Since 1982 he has performed with the company 20 times culminating in Richard III and winning his first Olivier Award in 1986. Other roles include Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, both in 1987, Tamburlaine in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, Malevole in The Malcontent in 2002 and most recently The Tempest in 2009 as Prospero.

It is the fifth time he has been directed by Greg at the RSC – previously the couple worked together on Cyrano de Bergerac in 1997, Macbeth with Harriet Walter as Lady Macbeth and The Winter’s Tale, both in 1999 and Othello with Sello Maake Ncube in 2004.

“Working with any director you have to trust them but sometimes working with one’s real life partner – the person you live with and know and are spending your life with – is just extra special. Added to that is my respect for him as a Shakespearian director – he’s one of the best. I benefit from that experience,” Sir Anthony explains.

“Coming from South Africa I was really frightened when I first started working at the RSC. I felt a bit like a trespasser.

“I’ve had a well-travelled journey with the RSC, learning I have the right to do Shakespeare, I can do it. Working with a great Shakespearian like Greg has given me with confidence.”

Greg and Sir Antony met in 1987 as actors in the RSC and formed a civil partnership in 2005. The couple have two homes – in London and Stratford-upon-Avon.

“There’s the artistic director’s house in Stratford which is just being renovated. It’s a really lovely house and we are very excited.

“We will be there for the next 10 years while he’s doing this job. They are letting me have one of the rooms as a studio.

“We have always loved Stratford, and we will love it even more.”

Sir Antony is delighted to hear that Shakespeare’s original half-timbered classroom at King Edward VI School may soon open up to the public as part of a lottery bid.

“Whenever you walk into that room it really blows your head to think he actually sat in that room. It’s wonderful.

“Stratford is full of these pleasures – you can virtually feel him. I believe in ghosts in walls, even in the theatre you get a sense of all these great actors.”

At home Sir Antony says Greg is a “terrific” cook.

“Very sweetly, he learnt some of the recipes from my childhood. One of my favourites is a very traditional lamb-tomato stew. Now no-one makes it better than him,” he says, smiling.

Actor Sir Antony Sher (right) with Greg Doran
Actor Sir Antony Sher (right) with Greg Doran
 

Outside of work Sir Antony and Greg share a love of nature.

“We make sure we get our holidays. We both work very hard. Our favourite holiday is going wildlife viewing. We have been whale-watching in the USA and on safari’s in South Africa.

“We both get a lot of peace and inspiration from the natural world.”

It was only after moving from South Africa in 1968 to train as an actor in London that Sir Antony was exposed to the atrocities of apartheid and later went on to work with anti-apartheid campaigners in the UK.

Earlier this month he attended Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey joining almost 2,000 people including Prince Harry, David Cameron, deputy president of the Republic of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe, and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, the Most Reverend Desmond Tutu.

“It was very moving and inspiring. They brought over the Soweto Gospel Choir and to hear them singing very traditional South African songs in Westminster Abbey was really moving. I would not have missed it.”

Sir Antony met the former South African leader twice. “The first time was after he was released (from prison) in 1990. There was a big reception and one of the antiapartheid groups I had done a lot of work for was invited. I met him then.

“In 2001 Greg and I did a huge South African benefit show called Freedom Too! at the Royal Festival Hall and he came over and we met him at South Africa House. It’s very hard to think of him as an ordinary man. He has a very special aura around him. It’s part of what we feel about him.”

After Stratford, Henry IV is embarking on a UK tour and transferring to the Barbican in London.

Both plays will be broadcast live from Stratford to more than 300 cinemas around Britain – Part I on Wednesday, May 14 and Part II on June18.

“I like touring. Every city has its own identity. I have only done live filming once before at The National and there was something quite moving about it.

“As I was going I was on stage I was aware my family in South Africa were going to the cinema to see it and Greg’s twin sister, who also lives overseas, was travelling to the cinema.

“It’s quite mind-blowing. I am not a great fan of technology but I thought: ‘Wow, this is very impressive’”.

* Henry IV Part I and II run at the RSC Theatre until September 6. For tickets ring the box office on 0844 800 1110 or go to www.rsc.org.uk