Travelling Light

Anthony Sher tells Kevin Bourke that new play Travelling Light reflects his own journey of becoming comfortable in his own skin

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In the National Theatre’s Travelling Light, coming to the Lowry and Leeds Grand this month, award-winning actor, writer and director Anthony Sher plays Jacob, a timber merchant in a remote Eastern European “shtetl” (or small town, in Yiddish) around 1900. When a young Jewish photographer arrives in the village with one of the Lumiere brothers’ new-fangled Cinematographe moving-picture cameras and projectors, Jacob funds the nascent director to make a motion picture in their village. Even though he’s illiterate, having fled a pogrom as a child and been forced to live wild, it’s Jacob who spots the potential of film.

Ebullient, successful, and somewhat scary, Jacob is almost a prototype Hollywood producer, or so we are invited to believe in Nicholas Wright’s funny and fascinating tribute to the Eastern European immigrants who became major players in Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“I don’t usually get to play people like that, with his earthiness and honesty. I get to play a lot of psychopaths, which he isn’t. I think of him as a wild animal. He is this sort of life force of a man,” agrees Sher. “He’s had a strange upbringing, part of the time as a feral child. He’s illiterate and yet has this natural instinct for storytelling and for business.”

He’s also another of Sher’s outsider characters.

“As an actor you get to play all sorts of parts but when you get to play a part that’s a part of your identity, something in you enjoys that in an extra way. So when I’m playing Jewish parts or gay parts or white South African parts, there’s something slightly more to it.

“In fact, I seem to be playing a whole string of Jewish parts at the moment as, apart from this, there was the Arthur Miller play Broken Glass and the next part I’m doing is as Freud in Terry Johnson’s play Hysteria.”

Yet as a young man at drama school in 1960s London, he admits he “spent a lot of time trying to deny the three things I was. Jewish, gay and South African – all of them held shame for me. I tried not to be those three things, which is absurd. How can you not be who you are? Especially as an actor, because you can’t start becoming other people until you know who you are. It doesn’t mean you have to be blissfully happy with it, but you have to at least own who you are.”

Born in Cape Town in 1949, Sher emigrated to London, where he began training as an actor in 1969. He spent time on Manchester Polytechnic’s post-graduate course at Granada before becoming part of that astonishing group of young actors and writers, including the likes of Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Bernard Hill, Julie Walters, Trevor Eve and Jonathan Pryce, working at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre in the 1970s.

“There are bits in this play that resonate strongly for me about leaving home, about home having an emotional tug that is completely irresistible. That rings very true for me every time that I go back to South Africa, particularly as I get older,” he observes.

“My first novel, Middlepost in 1989, traced the journey that my people made from a shtetl in Eastern Europe to, in their case, South Africa. Two of my grandparents came from the same shtetl, called Plunge, in Lithuania.

“Unbelievably, I got back to see Plunge when the National Theatre went on a cultural visit to Lithuania but my grandparents would never have believed that a Sher would have gone back to see this place they had left as shamed, second-class people, because they were Jewish and there was so much anti-Semitism, and such fear of the pogroms at that time.

“Now I love the mixture that makes me me, and that’s why it’s such a shame that people waste energy in denying who they are.”

Travelling Light, The Lowry, Salford, 13-17 March, Grand Theatre, Leeds, 20-24 March

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Travelling Light

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