Sher’s naked truth
Antony Sher’s revealing play about Michelangelo’s David is a journey into sexuality and creativity, he tells John Nathan
SIR ANTONY Sher looks doubtfully at his three smokeds a l mon b a g e l s . Each is about two inches across, with a s l i v e r of pink and a molecule of cream cheese. The snack looked appetising behind the glass at Hampstead Theatre’s food counter. But sitting apologetically on a plate in front of the powerfully built but now crestfallen Sher, these bagels, so called, are a sorry excuse for lunch.
“It is a profound disappointment to me what is called a ‘bagel’,” says Sher staring at offending the morsels. “My grandmother, who was from Lithuania, brought over her bagel recipe and used to make them. But these…”
This seems a wholly inadequate sustenance for a man who is not only a great actor, but a recognised artist, novelist and playwright, and who, for his third piece for the stage, has written about possibly the greatest work of art in the world. The Giant, which was commiss i o n e d b y the RSC and o p e n e d this week at North London’s Hampstead Theatre, is Sher’s perspective on the creation of the Florentine masterpiece David.
According to Sher, the young Michelangelo was not a certainty for the commission to carve Goliath’s slayer. The young prodigy (played by John Light) had to compete head-to-head with the established genius of Leonardo da Vinci (played by Roger Allam) in order to win the job.
These were not ideas plucked by Sher out of thin air. The notion that Leonardo might also have been a contender for the commission to sculpt the nude figure of David was discussed in the 16th-century book, The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari.
“But the really important thing was a book called David by the Hand of Michelangelo by a Renaissance art scholar called Frederick Hartt, who suggests that the model for the David statue might have been a young quarryman from Carrara, where the marble comes from.” It is through Vito, the quarryman, that Sher tells his story. Because of the nudity in the play, it is a role which required very specific attributes for the actor. “Agents will ring clients up and say: ‘Can you ride a horse?’, or ‘Can you row a boat for this part?’ In this case they had to ask: ‘Are you circumcised?’” chuckles Sher.
But while the play’s view of history is fascinating, what interests Sher is the connection between sexuality and the creativity. “What’s particularly interesting in the case of Leonardo and Michelangelo is that both men were gay,” says Sher. “And yet from my reading, both seem to have led celibate lives. And certainly there are different scenes in the play when you see them pouring that energy from not practising their sexuality into this incredible body of work.”
The three plays written by Sher each reflect something of the man. His first play, I.D., was set in South Africa — where he was born — and tackled apartheid. His second was an adaptation of Primo Levi’s Auschwitz memoir If This Is a Man and, it could be said, was born out of Sher’s Jewish identity. If The Giant, which is directed by Sher’s partner Gregory Doran, reflects both his sexuality and his talent as an artist, what, then, would a fourth play tap into?
“When [actor] Simon Callow came to see I.D., he said: ‘How extraordinary that you’ve taken on this subject. Most playwrights’ first play is about their family.’ So I’ve been thinking of a kind of family play. I’m very interested in Jewish white South Africa. It’s come up in a lot of my fiction and my novels. That journey that my grandmother made [as a refugee] from Lithuania...” — he looks down at his plate — “the one with the bagel recipe, is endlessly fascinating. The fleeing of persecution and then finding that the boot is on the other foot [under apartheid]. It’s very easy to be critical of those people, what they did, what my family did. They were just middle-of-the-road people, they weren’t rabidly racist, but certainly they bought into the system of their times, and voted for the Na- tionalist Party in a kind of unthinking, middle-of-the-road way.”
The play would be Sher’s most personal work for the stage. For the moment, though, he has no immediate plans to go back to acting. “ The Giant has so completely filled the last few months, I haven’t really looked beyond it.”
And unlike his previous plays, Sher has this time managed to stick to what he set out to do, which is to write and not act. “I’ve always enjoyed writing as an alternative to acting. And I’ve longed for the experience that I’m having now, which is to be the playwright in rehearsals sitting in the corner. You learn an enormous amount about the play.” The Giant is at the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3, until December 1. Tickets on 020 7722 9301
Antony Sher ( right) and cast member Roger Allam discuss Sher’s play The Giant ( above right),
about the making of the famous statue of David