Britain's Potent Stage Presence
Critics heap praise on South African-born actor Antony Sher, who has put his brilliant stamp on a clutch of classical roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company but who hasn't made an international splash - yet
BRITAIN'S top acting school turned him down flat. The letter of refusal from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art included a crushing fillip of finality: ``Not only have you failed the audition, not only do we not want you to try again, but we recommend that you think of a different career.'' But in the face of rejection, Antony Sher persevered and eventually succeeded in becoming an actor. Today, 21 years later, he's considered one of Britain's most gifted thespians - some go so far as to say the most gifted. Although he has yet to make a splash on the international scene, his current lead role in the new Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) play ``Singer,'' by Peter Flannery, fueled a sell-out of the London engagement long before the show completed its Stratford-upon-Avon run. The play will move to the RSC's larger main London stage at the Barbican Center in July.Skip to next paragraph
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Sher's best work, in fact, has been on the London stage as a member (for the past nine years) of the RSC. There have been many high points. The critics were effusive about his performance in the title role in the RSC's 1985-86 production of ``Richard III.'' ``The only actor in our lifetime to have challenged the 40-year memory of Olivier in that role,'' one wrote, echoing the concensus.
Throughout the past decade Sher, now 41, has also stamped his mark on a clutch of other classical parts, from the Fool in ``King Lear'' to Shylock in ``Merchant of Venice.''
Colleagues also express unusual praise for Sher. ``I regard Tony as the most equipped, the most extraordinary actor of his generation in England today,'' observes Terry Hands, the RSC's artistic chief. ``I think he's a phenomenal star. ... I don't think there is anybody at the moment who can touch him.''
But critical response to ``Singer'' itself has been mixed. Hands attributes its overwhelming box office success - the kind normally associated with a hit musical - to the actor's reputation in a company that also includes heavyweights like Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley. ``He is ... the only actor we have at the RSC who can put bottoms on seats,'' says Hands. ``He has an extraordinary following.''
Sher's talent isn't limited to acting. He is also an accomplished artist, whose recent paintings and drawings have just been published in a volume entitled ``Characters.''
And he is a writer. On the strength of a best-selling first book a few years back - ``The Year of the King,'' an insightful account in diary form of his life at the RSC while preparing for ``Richard III'' - he was asked by the publisher to try a novel. The result, ``Middlepost,'' made publishing history here by eliciting the highest fee ever paid 115,000 pounds ($191,000), for the paperback rights of a first novel.
``Middlepost'' turned out to be a sophisticated, if at times undisciplined, tale centering on South African society at the turn of the century and the roots of today's racial troubles. It proved controversial in Sher's homeland - he was born and raised in Cape Town - but won this year's second prize in South Africa's prestigious Central News Agency Literary Awards.
Meeting this Renaissance man is a curious experience. Perched on the edge of his seat in the plush tea lounge of London's Savoy Hotel, the diminutive star who seems to fill an entire stage while performing could pass for a traveling salesman.
A colleague notes, ``Nobody spots Tony in a room. What he does is quite simple really: ... He conserves his energy for what he wants to do, which is to act and write. In between times, he just switches the motors off.''