To watch Antony Sher onstage was an uncommonly visceral experience. Sher, the South African-born British stage star who died on Thursday at 72, made you feel his performances on a level few other actors achieve.
I’m not talking about an emotional reaction here, or not only that. I mean a physical response, the kind that registers in your muscles, your stomach, your bones. A small-framed 5-foot-6, Sher was not, by conventional measurements, a naturally imposing presence.
Yet the concentration and physiological specificity with which he embodied characters, from power-hungry medieval monarchs to a 20th-century sensualist painter, made you tense up in anatomical empathy. After attending a Sher performance, I would often throb with the ache that follows a rigorous run on rough terrain. I was even tempted to check my body for bruises.
After seeing him in the title role of “Primo,” on Broadway in 2005, I found myself walking gingerly as I left the theater, and I imagined I could sense other audience members doing the same. In that one-man work, adapted by Sher from “If This Is a Man,” the memoir of the great writer and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, the actor gave palpable shape to the unspeakable legacy of life in a concentration camp, in the very way he moved across a stage.
Each step he took had a stiffness and wariness that evoked months of existence as a human beast of burden in shoes that never fit. The simplest everyday movements became an assertion of will over the tidal pull of both terrifying memory and an abused body. And you knew, on a gut level, that the six-digit tattoo etched on his arm was only the most superficial emblem of how this man had been scrawled upon by inhuman hands.
That sense of wrestling with and overcoming the limitations of the fallible human form was spectacularly evident in the performance that made him a star: Shakespeare’s Richard III. For that 1984 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, he consulted orthopedic surgeons to understand the exact nature of Richard III’s physical disabilities.
The resulting portrait was of the “bottled spider,” the “bunch-backed toad” as a man who had taken thorough inventory of the limitations of his body and transformed perceived weaknesses into weapons. On crutches, he moved faster and more forcefully than anyone else onstage, and you were never not aware of the exhausting energy required. (The process of Sher’s transformation into Richard is documented in his 1985 book, “Year of the King,” a first-rate breakdown of an actor’s creation of a role.)
I regret having missed his Lear, some three decades later. But I cherish my memories of his Macbeth, directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by Sher’s partner (and future husband) Gregory Doran, which came to the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Conn., in 2000, with the marvelous Harriet Walter as the thane’s murderous wife. Unlike Richard III, Macbeth was an able-bodied, rather ordinary looking soldier.
But the gap between a mortal body and the spirit that would transcend it was still in thrilling evidence. At one point, Macbeth speaks, almost disparagingly, of his “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other …”
And Sher’s Macbeth was infused with the sense of ambition stretching arduously to make its possessor smarter, nobler, larger than he really was. His body, in this case, seemed truly to puff up and grow bigger. He looked hot, as in feverish or on fire; the glimmer in his eyes was scary. By the end, the fire had turned to something dead and ashen, and Macbeth had shrunk into an easily vanquished foe.
Three years earlier, I had seen him on Broadway as the British painter Stanley Spencer, an artist who focused on the spirit within the palpable flesh and whose often biblical figures were rendered with a fecund earthiness. In Pam Gems’s “Stanley,” Sher seemed almost airborne, a scampering sprite of a man who never walked when he could leap. But even as he did his damnedest to defy gravity, there was no doubt that Stanley’s ecstatic energy had its source in the carnal, the corporeal, the animal, with an attendant, sorrowful awareness of the way of all flesh.
Another character in the play describes Spencer’s art in these terms: “He paints people trapped, as it were, in their own flesh, pinned down to this earth, and yet they seek to soar and he makes that seem so very possible.”
It’s a worthy epitaph for Mr. Sher as well. Onstage, he truly soared. That you felt, so completely, the effort required for a human body to take flight made you marvel all the more at the accomplishment.