Sir Antony Sher gets a shiver down his spine as he arrives at the Hampstead Theatre to rehearse the role of Sigmund Freud in a revival of Terry Johnson’s play, Hysteria. He has worked there many times, as an actor or playwright. Yet despite this, every time he pushes open the venue’s heavy doors, he is haunted by a memory that was captured on a home movie shot 45 years ago by his mother Margery.
It was 1968 when the 19-year-old Sher came to London from South Africa with his parents and the single minded ambition to become an actor. They had decided he was gong to join the Central School of Speech and Drama, one of the best drama schools in the country at that time. And to capture the momentous start to what was undoubtedly going to be a brilliant career, Margery proudly filmed her 19-year-old son climbing the steps to the Central’s main entrance, which is opposite the Hampstead Theatre. “I was turned down flat,” recalls Sher, glancing over my shoulder through a Hampstead Theatre window. “The whole audition lasted 10 minutes.”
He later joined another drama school (Webber Douglas) and went on to have that brilliant career. But the memory is still painful, painful enough for Sher to joke about how he would like to blow up the Central’s steps. It’s the kind of formative experience that would be meat and drink to Freud, were Sher ever to have been analysed by the father of psychiatry. Instead of which, it is Sher’s job as an actor to analyse Freud.
“It’s a terrific part,” says the 64-year-old. “But maybe by looking at Freud at the very end of his life, when he’s vulnerable and dying of mouth cancer, you just get a way of playing a human being rather than a legend.”
It is this final era of Freud’s life that starts Johnson’s play — first seen at the Royal Court in 1993 and here directed by the author. It is 1938 and Freud has been driven from Vienna by the Nazis, his sisters have been sent to concentration camps and his health is seriously on the wane.
In walks a young artist whose presence in Freud’s office is about as incongruous as a lobster perched on top of a telephone. We’re talking about Dali. And despite being set in the agonising end-game of Freud’s life, the play is farce.
“Well, a section of it is,” Sher explains. “Terry Johnson has done a real carnival of a play. It takes Freud’s obsession with the unconscious — or what we call the subconscious — and Dali’s obsession with surrealism, throws them into the air and juggles with them. So a section of it is pure farce, a section of it is psychological thriller, parts of it are drama, other parts are pure comedy. It’s a real mixed bag.”
Although there is a scene when trousers fall and a nude is hidden in Freud’s closet, Johnson’s play is not entirely fictional. For it is known that Freud did go to see a Ben Travers farce that year and, yes, Dali (played here by Adrian Schiller) really did visit Freud’s Hampstead consulting room in which the play is set.
A younger Sher might have preferred the role of Dali. In 1997 he created the role of Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems’s play about the British painter and it was a part for which Sher got to use skills honed as serious and exhibited artist. “That was a joy because I had to actually paint and draw in the scenes. As actors, you’re often having to learn skills. When I played Cyrano [de Bergerac] I had to be the best swordsman in France...” At this point, Sher gesticulates towards his own rotund but compact body, as if it and a rapier could ever be convincing partners. “But to get a part where I have got to draw while we are playing a scene, I can do that without thinking.”
Art was also “fantastically useful” in the years Sher was in therapy. He has written and spoken about the years of cocaine addiction and stage fright, conditions which the talking cure helped to resolve. He is no longer in therapy but some of the most fruitful sessions involved drawing, not talking. “The last form [of analysis] I did was art therapy, where you create an image in the session. I just found it a very good way of bypassing the bull**** that you can talk in a therapy session. You put down this image that you might not quite understand and then you find out the very interesting things that it reveals.”
Sher is also a writer and novelist and says: “I really like doing all three things — acting, drawing and writing. When I get pissed off with one I can do another for a while.” But there is the sense of a first love when he talks about art. “I still regret that I didn’t learn the techniques as you would at an art school.”
It’s a discipline that Sher will manage to develop at home like never before. A studio is being added to the house in Stratford-upon-Avon he lives in with his partner, RSC artistic director Greg Doran. “Greg’s new job is like Prime Minister. You get a house. And since it was in need of some repair, we were invited to say what we’d like done to it. So I’m putting a studio into it. I’m really excited because I’ve never had a proper studio.”
The two will be working together on Sher’s next role. Doran has cast him as Falstaff in next year’s productions of Henry IV Part One and Two. The role came about after Doran saw Sher play the Jewish shtetl merchant in Nicholas Wright’s play about cinema, Travelling Light, at the National Theatre.
“Greg said: ‘Have you thought about playing Falstaff?’ I said ‘no’ and he said: ‘Well I think I’ve just seen you play his Jewish cousin. What about the man himself?’”
Rehearsals for that production begin in January in Stratford, far away from Freud’s house in Hampstead. And perhaps a little more pointedly for Sher, far away also from those steps at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
Hysteria runs until October 12