A massive painting depicting 130 people who have influenced the life of Sir Antony Sher is the centrepiece of an exhibition of the actor’s work at the National Theatre to mark his 60th birthday.
The painting, The Audience, fulfils a long-held ambition. “I had been wanting to paint it for years but my studio in London is far too small.
But last year Greg Doran [his partner and RSC chief associate director] had a season in Stratford directing David Tennant in Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost.
“I obviously wanted to be with him so I just said to my agent: ‘Look, I don’t want any work. I just want to be a painter this year.’ The RSC found me a terrific studio in Shakespeare’s own school, the King Edward VI School, during the summer holidays and then they moved me across the road to their offices.”
He describes the work as “biography in imagery. It is a surreal mix of famous iconic figures, my heroes and villains, alongside family, friends, lovers and fictional characters from my novels and plays.
“It took ages to work out the seating plan. It was a dinner party from hell working out who would sit next to whom. But it was always dictated by something inside me — it is even more personal than my autobiography.”
The young boy who appears twice in the fourth row from the back, once wearing a kipah and tallit, and then nude, is a self-portrait at the time of his barmitzvah. “Just behind me is my barmitzvah teacher.”
Also included are his parents in the bottom right hand corner, featured in both ithe prime of their lives and at the time of their deaths.
In the centre of the front row, the artist depicts himself with Gregory Doran on the day of their civil partnership ceremony.
Also portrayed are personal heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando, artistic inspirations including Salvador Dali and Michelangelo and villains — Adolf Hitler, Osama Bin Laden and Eugene Terreblanche, the South African neo-Nazi leader.
Self-portraits in character of roles he has played include other heroes of his: “I show myself playing Primo [Levi] and Disraeli.”
So how does he feel about turning 60? “It is such a surprise. Somewhere in me there is a young person saying you can’t be 60. But I feel relaxed. I did go through quite a bad patch turning 50.
“But I don’t feel anything like that now. I am thrilled that my family have come over from South Africa and we will be having a relaxed family lunch and a lovely day.”
The exhibition runs until June 27.