Antony Sher Exhibition (National Theatre, 20th June 2009)

On encountering Antony Sher’s large work The Audience in the foyer of the Lyttleton Theatre at the National Theatre, I realise that the subject matter also touches on my own life as at points I’ve encountered the portrayals characters in the painting. Richard III was the first play, I saw at the RSC, and twenty years later, I was to see The Tempest (see blog posts Tempest at RSC Courtyard and Sheffield Lyceum).

The Audience is a large painting showing figures who had had an influence on Antony Sher’s life, whether they are friends, family, artists or notorious public figures. The montage is interesting because there are empty seats, whether these are the gaps for those Sher would have wanted to be part of his life or for those who he has chosen not to represent. As Sher said, in his National Theatre Platform appearance, there are empty seats at most performances and he wanted to show these. The Audience brings together many of Sher’s works shown in the rest of the exhibition such as the ‘bottled spider’, his Richard III sketch carried out preparing for the part in 1984 and the portraits of actors and partners past and present – Greg Doran, Mark Rylance, Jim Hooper. Sher’s characters, such as Richard, Shylock, Macbeth, Stanley Spencer, Primo Levi sit alongside real people. In one section Sher portrays artists who have influenced him including Michelangelo and Dali. As well as actors who he has worked with, or he is friends with, there are the actors who have influenced Sher. There is Sher’s representation 0f Laurence Olivier, as Richard III, whose image hovers over Sher in The Year of the King and a portrait of Judi Dench. Then there are those people that are disturbing. No one wants to sit next to Hitler except his younger self and Idi Armin looks threaten from the back row.

I felt that the painting is autobiographical and is also autobiography. The painting is not only portraiture, it presents moods and images that capture Sher’s emotions and feelings about his life, and becomes a visual narrative about ‘his journey’ through his career and personal life clearly both intertwined. For example, the beautiful image of a young Greg Doran clearly conveys the painter’s delight in this person and the marriage portrait conveys feelings of joy. In contrast the image of Sher snorting cocaine and the fragment from the intriguing Three Generations of the male Sher line (painted in cocaine and Sher’s father’s ashes). Sher’s pride in creating characters on stage is conveyed in the image, as well as the tensions in working on character such as on Macbeth.

I have always felt reading Sher’s autobiographical works that he has always tried to label himself, and has been very open about being ‘the other’. Is he an actor, or writer or artist? He talks about being in so many closets – being gay, Jewish, white South African – and his autobiographical work also discusses coming out of those closets. It feels very much with the exhibition in the National Theatre, and the reissue of his autobiography Beside Myself , that Sher is now comfortable being an artist, writer and actor all at the same time and doesn’t have to be one while the rest become subsidiary.


Previews and Review

Antony Sher Exhibition review in the Financial Times
Review of Antony Sher paintings


Branagh, Kenneth. (1989). Beginning. London: Chatto and Windus

Sher, Antony. (1985) Year of the King. London: Methuen

Sher Antony (1987) Characters. London: Nick Hern Books

Sher Antony. (1997) Woza Shakespeare. London: Methuen

Sher, Antony. (2001) Beside Myself. London: Hutchinson (reissued in paperback by Nick Hern Books 2008 includes new forward, and image of The Audience)

Sher, Antony. (2005) Primo Time. London: Nick Hern Books

Sher, Antony (2006) in The Way We Are Now, ed. Ben Summerskill. London: Continuum

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