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The RSC presents Henry IV Parts I and II starring Sir Antony Sher at Canterbury's Marlowe Theatre

Celebrated stage actor Sir Antony Sher can’t wait to gauge a Kent audience’s reaction to his embodiment of Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV Parts I and II. Jo Roberts reports.

Sir Antony Sher
Sir Antony Sher

For the county’s classical theatre lovers, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performances of Henry IV Parts I and II will possibly be the highlight of the year.

Shakespeare’s history plays are directed in Canterbury this week by RSC artistic director Gregory Doran and star RSC associate artist Sir Antony Sher as Falstaff.

Knighted for his services for acting and writing, Sir Antony first worked for the RSC in 1982. He last appeared with the RSC in The Tempest in 2009, and his many other roles for the company have included Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice, Iago in Othello and the title roles in Tamburlaine, Cyrano de Bergerac and Macbeth.

Sir Antony, 65, is also a writer and his books include the memoirs Woza Shakespeare: Titus Andronicus In South Africa, co-written with Gregory Doran who is also his partner.

He gave What’s On an insight into these plays, the RSC and the pair’s shared life.

Sir Anthony Sher stars with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Sir Anthony Sher stars with the Royal Shakespeare Company

Are you looking forward to looking around in Canterbury or is it just another whistlestop on the play’s tour?

“I have been to Canterbury but not recently and not often, so it’s a great treat. I only hope we get some time to look around because we are going to be fairly busy with two plays and matinees in that one week. I don’t spend most of my life touring, I’ve done a lot of that but I’m mostly in London or Stratford. My partner, Greg Doran, runs the RSC so we have a second home in Stratford. I do enjoy touring because you get a different personality in the audience at each venue and that’s stimulating for us as actors. I can’t wait to find out about the Canterbury audience’s personality.”

Can you remember which was your first RSC role?

“The Fool in King Lear, with Michael Gambon as Lear. I had already established myself outside RSC, I’d played the leading role in a TV show called The History Man for the BBC – in fact it was probably because of that they asked me to come to RSC. That was in 1982. I was very excited and challenged by coming to work for RSC as it was a legendary company in my eyes. Because I was brought up in South Africa, with something like Shakespeare and classical theatre I wasn’t completely sure that I was up to it. As it gradually became apparent that I could do Shakespeare and was playing the great roles – only a few actors get that opportunity – then excitement took over. I regard the 30-odd years of working on-and-off with RSC as this fantastic journey I’ve been able to go on. It’s a privilege.”

How have you changed as a performer over the years?

“With Shakespeare you can never get enough experience. It’s such a challenge to an actor because you’re getting to play these characters like Falstaff but you also have to be able to speak this difficult, heightened language and speak it so an audience will be able to listen and understand what you’re saying – it’s a craft, like perfecting a particular type of instrument. I’m able to do it with some amount of ease now.”

You’ve played so many of Shakespeare’s great roles – which is your favourite character?

“This present character, Falstaff, is a totally amazing creation. From Shakespeare’s point of view it’s a very modern creation. Falstaff breaks all the rules. He’s an alcoholic, a thief, unscrupulous, and yet also a life force and extraordinary company.”

Do you ever get affected by nerves?

“You wouldn’t be fully alive or fully awake if you didn’t feel... nerves is not the word, but a sense that you’re about to perform. Sportsmen must feel what actors feel, in the changing room in Wimbledon before an important match. You feel that you’re about to play one of the greatest roles that’s ever been written, there’s a heightened sense of anticipation, excitement and apprehension – it’s not a normal job.”

What’s your idea of unwinding after a high-pressure show?

“A glass of chilled white wine is a very nice way of rewarding myself at the end of a performance. I can’t eat beforehand – I usually have a decent lunch and then don’t eat again – so I will tend to have a supper afterwards.”

You and your partner Greg Doran are both working at the very top of the classical theatre world – do the pair of you ever feel like slouching down on the couch for a night in front of the TV?

“On a Sunday evening our favourite thing is to sit in front of the telly with a bite. Our favourites tend to be nature programmes and our favourite holidays are safaris. That’s our relaxation.”

Henry IV Parts I and II are at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre from Tuesday, November 11 to Saturday, November 15. Tickets cost from £14. For performance times and full details, visit www.marlowetheate.com or call 01227 787787.

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