London — BRITAIN's drama schools wouldn't have him. ``I wasn't even given a chance for an audition,'' says Nabil Shaban, without bitterness. The doors to an acting career snapped shut for one reason: Mr. Shaban is deformed, diminutive, and confined to a wheelchair. Today, any British drama institution would be overjoyed to claim as its alumnus the man who is the country's most talked about stage star. At 34, Shaban recently starred in ``The Emperor,'' at London's Royal Court Theatre, for which he received ecstatic reviews. One critic wrote simply: ``He is extraordinary.''
Indeed, when Shaban whizzes on stage in his electric wheelchair, rather than trying to hide his disability (which would be impossible) he incorporates it into his performance. Visual witticisms - as when the other actors whisper conspiratorially in each other's ears and Shaban whispers into the nearest kneecap - are a part of his repertoire. His expressive face and uncommonly elegant hands are used to the fullest. ``He has absolutely no inhibitions,'' a colleague observes.
For an interview at the Royal Court, Shaban is carried in his chair upstairs to a communal dressing room. As soon as the wheels touch the ground, he's off like a shot to open the door for his interviewer.
In chatting with the actor, his reaction to all the fuss is decidedly low-key: ``First of all, I'm always amused at the different descriptions I get of myself, the physical descriptions of me, that is. They'll say I'm a midget, for instance, or that I've got no legs.... It makes me worry about theater critics; if they get things like that wrong, then maybe all the nice things they've been saying are wrong as well!''
There's an unmistakably amused glint in Shaban's eye as he speaks. Then he abruptly shifts gear to underscore a point of utmost concern to him. He's acutely aware of the turn-a-``cripple''-into-hero syndrome, which comes into play whenever someone such as he simply tries to enter into the mainstream of life. This is something he's strongly against. It implies, he says, that disabled people are somehow a breed apart.
``It's absurd to think of us in heroic terms,'' Shaban states firmly. ``I remember when I first started getting reviews, I found it very disturbing; I didn't know what I was really like as an actor. I didn't know where - because they had never come across a specimen like me on stage before - the critics were exaggerating. Anything I did which may have been, in ordinary terms, fairly mediocre, they seemed to think was better than it really was, because it was a disabled person doing it. So I always took any of the complimentary comments with a pinch of salt. And I think I still tend to do that.''
Shaban's colleagues, however, are less skeptical about the accolades.
``Nabil is going to become a major actor; I have no doubt about that,'' predicts Royal Court dramatist Michael Hastings, who first spotted Shaban and, along with internationally acclaimed director Jonathan Miller, was responsible for bringing ``The Emperor'' to the stage. ``He's absolutely brilliant.''
Shaban doesn't have the slick polish of a Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts product, continues Hastings, but, on the other hand, his innate raw talent makes him ``a very dignified actor with enormous soulfulness and grace. He has a gravity and a beauty of language and action ... and is, simply, very convincing.''
As impatient as Shaban is with the ``hero syndrome,'' the reality is that, as far as it's known, he is the first severely disabled actor to appear on the British stage in a role that has nothing to do with disability - or, indeed, has ever been asked to be part of a major British drama company.
``When I first heard about the opportunity of doing `The Emperor' I was really excited,'' Shaban recalls, ``because I could see what it signified. Here was a disabled actor being chosen to work in an able-bodied production because of his acting skills, for what he has to offer as a performer. And I think that's exactly what is needed.''
``The Emperor'' is the story of the inner workings and eventual downfall of Ethiopia's Byzantine style of court under Haile Selassie (although Hastings believes, at a deeper level, it's an allegory of Poland before Solidarity). Adapted from a book of the same title, by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, the play itself is something of an audacious venture. The play is largely surrealistic rather than naturalistic; no one person plays any one character. The show's five actors emerge individually and at different moments, from a series of doors and small cupboards, to deliver lyrical passages from the book. Then, as quickly as one has appeared, he will disappear. Occasionally only a face will pop out of a cupboard to say its lines. Other times, an actor will continue the tale, while another, or the entire group, will do a mime depicting the meaning of the words. The style, in part, is reminiscent of classical Greek drama.
Although the play is intriguing in its own right and the acting in the recent production was superb, it was Nabil Shaban who attracted the most attention. Understandably so. For as talented as he obviously is, the odds of Shaban's ever having been picked to star in such a play were, until very recently, next to nil.
Disowned by his Jordanian parents at the age of 3, Shaban was deposited in a British hospital for severely disabled children. There he stayed until age 9. A series of institutions followed. It was assumed that he would remain institutionalized for the rest of his life.
But Shaban didn't abide by such assumptions. He struggled hard to achieve academic success - despite repeated discouragement from various medical staff and institution officials - culminating in the offer of a place at Britain's well-respected Surrey University.
Having earlier had his hopes dashed of ever entering drama school, Shaban spent most of his university days creating his own opportunity for dramatic training. With the help of an enthusiastic teacher, he formed Graeae, a drama company expressly for disabled people, the first of its kind in the country. That was in 1980. Within a very brief time it shocked everyone - not least of all Shaban, who was then performing in the troupe - by going professional.
Shortly thereafter, Shaban was asked to co-star, outside of Graeae, in an able-bodied play focusing on disability. More roles were to follow, including TV films appearing alongside the likes of Ian McKellen and Faye Dunaway. There was also the chance to play Jesus in a (largely disabled) stage production of ``Godspell.''
But it is Shaban's performance in ``The Emperor'' that has marked a major turning point in the actor's career. Already he's been asked by a provincial theater to play the title role in ``Hamlet'' (``I think people get bored seeing one blond Hamlet after another,'' he quips). Then there's a movie that has just been written expressly for him, set around a dramatic protest he made a couple of years ago against South Africa's apartheid. Jonathan Miller hopes to use him again, this time in the role of the Fool in a major production of ``King Lear.'' Even Britain's National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company are showing strong interest in the actor.
One can't help wondering, with so much initially stacked against him, what gives Shaban his determination to succeed?
``Arrogance, perhaps,'' he shoots back with a mischievous twinkle.
Then, after a reflective pause, he confides that for many years he simply sat back and prayed for a miracle to heal him. ``Eventually I realized,'' he continues, ``I can't depend on ... that. I've got to depend on myself.''
Shaban is thrilled with the idea that his high profile could draw attention to the disabled community as a hitherto untapped source of acting talent.
``Directors just don't realize how much disabled people can do,'' Shaban observes.
``Often disabled people themselves aren't fully aware of what they are capable of - and that's largely because most of their lives they've been told they can't do things. The fact is, if they just got on with it, they'd probably prove everyone wrong.''