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Ms Caplan and Mr McCabe by Antony Sher

Out of his element in sport-obsessed South Africa, an unhappy young Sher was saved by art and acting. But the budding thespian was doomed to disappoint one of his role models

Out of his element in sport-obsessed South Africa, an unhappy young Sher was saved by art and acting. But the budding thespian was doomed to disappoint one of his role models

Growing up in South Africa, in a sports-mad society, wasn't easy for a short, weedy boy with no talent for sport.

I felt like a failure. Everything was judged on sports or fitness and I suffered quite badly. I became an introverted child who preferred to spend time in my bedroom, drawing and painting pictures.

So my parents decided to send me for private elocution lessons with Esther Caplan. I think they thought it would bring me out of myself.

There was a certain amount of shame about the South African accent; it was a post-colonial thing. Sounding British was deemed to be much better. Sending a child to improve their speech and accent was not uncommon, but learning to act was highly unusual at that time in Sea Point, which was a Jewish business area in Cape Town (my father was a businessman). I think my parents were just desperate to make me happier.

Esther really taught me acting rather than elocution and she ignited my love of theatre. But it was a high school teacher, John McCabe, who probably saved my life.

He was an art teacher and was convinced I had a future as an artist. He spoke to the physical education department and got me out of the classes I so hated, allowing me to go to the art room and work with him instead.

I loved the subject and had been thinking of commercial art as a career, although it was assumed that nobody from our society would become an artist. Anything to do with the arts was unfamiliar. But Mr McCabe spotted that I could draw and set his sights on training me up for art college.

He was Scottish and a real character. He had these big bushy eyebrows, a big belly and long fingernails because of the kind of art he did. Nicknamed "Mac", he had quite an aggressive manner and some of the boys found him scary. I probably would have too if he hadn't been so gentle and encouraging with me.

But, in the end, there was almost an element of competition between Esther and Mac in terms of my passions and what I should do with my future.

I had learned to love acting and the escape it offered from myself in becoming another person. In fact, I became so seduced by it during my teens that I changed my mind about attending art school, choosing instead to go to London and drama school.

I think Mac was rather saddened by this development. I have never been a teacher, but every now and then they must meet a student who they see has the ability to achieve their own unfulfilled ambitions. And I might have been that student for Mac. He really didn't like my choice. I think he thought the decision to follow acting was a big mistake.

There was a poignant moment when I was leaving the school and I went to say goodbye to him. But he had already left - gone home early. I never got to say the farewell I wanted.

Both Esther and Mac are dead now but I did keep up an association with them for some years after I went to live in London. Esther was thrilled when she came to my first West End show; it meant a great deal to her.

And I still think of them often. They each showed me how wonderful the worlds of art and theatre are. I have both of them to thank for helping me to discover that.

Antony Sher plays Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company's productions of Henry IV Part I and Part II, opening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, this month. Both productions will tour the UK and be broadcast in cinemas and schools. For more information, visit

The world's a stage

Antony Sher

Born 14 June 1949

Education Sea Point Boys junior and high schools, Cape Town, South Africa; Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, London

Career Joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1982, performing lead roles in Richard III (on crutches) and Macbeth, plus extensive work in television and film

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