A look on the dark side of life

by Victoria James and Nobuko Tanaka

Sir Antony Sher was born near Cape Town, South Africa, in 1949. He moved to Britain in 1968 to attend drama school. His breakthrough performance was as Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1984-5. Since then he has received many acting honors and was knighted in 2000.

Sher has authored four novels, two theater books, an autobiography and a play. He plays Iago in the current RSC “Othello.”

VJ: How did you prepare for the role of Iago?

The most inspiring, liberating moment for me was when the decision was made to play it modern and military.

I was in the South African Army, which was at that time compulsory conscription, and [in "Othello" rehearsals] a British drill sergeant came in to teach us a bit of basic drill just so we could salute, do whatever we had to do, and his manner was so terrifying.

It was just one morning that he came and there we were, a group of about 10 grown-up British actors who could have walked out of the room at any moment, didn’t need to be talked to in any abusive way, and within seconds he’d just taken over. He had a tone of voice that was so reminiscent of my early military training, and I remembered how brutalizing and brutal that army experience was, where everything is reduced to two factors — power and violence.

What Iago does is only one stage further from what the normal army situation does to people anyway. You have to — I remember this from my training — you have to be broken down as a human being, to have your humanity taken away from you, in order to then become the kind of creature that can fight, kill and take commands whether or not you agree with them.

VJ: You have a reputation for doing monsters very well — any theories why that is?

I’m very drawn to the dark side of humanity; I think we don’t admit that enough. Maybe it’s because I’m an outsider, because I’m gay, I’m Jewish, I’m a white South African.

Living through the apartheid years showed me a side of human beings that was certainly not beautiful. Maybe that’s what draws me to find a way of playing those parts that isn’t just simplistic.

I hate that word “villain” — it implies a kind of religious divide between good and evil. I think people are “healthy” and “unhealthy,” so I’m constantly drawn to these parts to see what kind of psychological sense you could make, where you could show how they’d been damaged to make them behave in that way. Iago is a prime example of that.

VJ: Ten years ago I heard you on the radio in “Singer,” and that role [slum landlord Peter Singer] is similar.

Yes, there the persecuted turns into the persecutor. It’s a theme that obsesses me and that definitely comes from my background. My family fled eastern Europe at the turn of the last century because of anti-Semitism, and ended up in South Africa supporting that government.

How does that process happen, the underdog gets suddenly in a [better] position but then draws no comparison?

VJ: “Othello” is also, in one sense, about a marriage, between white and black, that society doesn’t accept. As you and Greg are one of Britain’s most famous gay partnerships, I wonder what you think about the recent gay marriages in San Francisco?

Well, the thing we’re terribly excited about is the law that’s going to be passed in Britain that will allow civil partnerships. We’ll be at the head of the queue when that becomes law.

People don’t understand, from a legal point of view, how desperately important that is. There are terrible stories of gay couples where one partner is injured and unconscious and his family, the real next of kin, perhaps don’t like the fact that he’s gay, so the partner is shunned and excluded. All sorts of things like that.

But this idea of a marriage that society can’t accept, well, “Othello” is unusual in Shakespeare in that it’s a domestic tragedy, but it’s about not just one, but two unhappy marriages. What we’ve worked very hard to show in our production is the Iago-Emilia marriage as well. The play is about that quartet.

NT: “Othello” is a drama of jealousy. Where does Iago’s jealousy come from?

Iago’s jealous of anything and everything. He hates himself, he hates humanity. All of his speeches have a negative take on whatever he’s talking about, always reducing. What’s astonishing about him is how charming he is, how the other characters in the play — and the audience, most significantly — don’t find him negative, they’re persuaded by him. The brilliant part of the writing is [that] Shakespeare somehow makes that fascinating; as an audience we never stand up and say “stop this.”

VJ: Tell us about your play, “I.D.,” about the 1966 assassination of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd.

The assassin [Demetrios Tsafendas] is the ultimate outsider, of course, but it was also such an important event in my youth. It seemed so very dramatic that the man called the architect of apartheid, the most invincible character you could imagine in the South Africa of my youth, could be felled by a nobody, a complete nobody — I just loved that.

VJ: And will you be writing more drama?

Well, as soon as “Othello” is finished I’m doing a one-man version of Primo Levi’s “If This is a Man” at the National [Theatre, London]. That’s an adaptation, but I’ll be writing more, oh yes!