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.

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.''

Sher's own explanation for his blend-into-the-wallpaper blandness off stage is shyness. Although his parents saw him as ``something of a minor child-prodigy'' artist, they were so concerned about his introverted nature that they bustled him off to drama lessons as a teenager to bring him out of his shell. Sher recalls he was initially drawn to acting because adopting an alter ego provided a way of transcending his shyness. At 18, he packed his bags and moved to England to further an acting career.

Depite the rejection from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and one from Britain's second-most-prestigious drama school, Sher refused to be deflected. Eventually, he was accepted by a third London school, but it still wasn't smooth sailing. At one point, Sher was told by an instructor that he wouldn't come into his own as an actor until his 30s - a pronouncement that turned out to be prophetic.

Sher's background as a Jewish (though non-practicing) South African has done much to shape him: He says for many years he struggled to come to terms with these dual strands of his identity. ``I remember reading a great deal about the Holocaust when I was growing up and being unable to comprehend that kind of inhumanity. And then, once I left [Cape Town], I realized what South African society was all about and that my family was part of it.

``For instance, I remember when I was growing up that my sister wanted to buy a car - a Volkswagen - and my father refusing to let her, you know, because of the war. The fact that they could have had a big [argument] over that issue and yet at the same time he could be voting for the Nationalist government - and ... not be aware of that contradiction - was appalling.

``The most important thing I've learned in doing my book,'' he remarks, ``is that my family's behavior, although disappointing ..., is also terribly human. Indeed, the process of [prejudice] and violence is a terribly human one; it's one that most people could undergo in the right circumstances.

``For example, I can think of no more appalling people in the world today than the ultra-right-wing [Eugene] Terrablanche and his supporters in South Africa. Now, if I found myself in some situation where I was able to behave very badly toward them ... then I might have a sense of righteousness about behaving badly toward them. Yet that's no different than the German people in Nazi Germany being convinced that the Jewish people were evil, for a whole set of reasons, and then being able to commit atrocities against them.

``It's simply a point of view. ... It seems that when you get violence done to you, you go away and do it to someone else. You don't learn that it hurts; you don't learn that you don't want to do that to someone else. You become, in a sense, brutalized.''

At one time, Sher's guilt over apartheid drove him to pretend he was British. Today, however, he finds his background can work for, rather than against, him. He has become an outspoken advocate for social and political change in his homeland. And in his acting, he has developed a strong preference for parts dealing with prejudice in any of its guises.

His role in ``Singer'' is a clear example. The character of Peter Singer is based on real-life Holocaust survivor Peter Rachman, who came to Britain penniless after being liberated from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945. Rachman eventually amassed a fortune as a ruthless landlord. In the play, Singer takes a personal journey from persecuted to persecutor and, ultimately, to spiritual redemption: He learns, in the end, that revenge is pointless - partly because we live in a world ``where people have forgotten how to remember,'' to use the words of playwright Peter Flannery.

The play is uneven and politically naive in the simplistic parallels it draws between Thatcherism and Nazism. Still, Sher's versatility and sheer physicality make for a performance of centripetal force.

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