Sher’s naked truth

Antony Sher’s re­veal­ing play about Michelan­gelo’s David is a jour­ney into sex­u­al­ity and cre­ativ­ity, he tells John Nathan

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

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

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