A Question of Faith on Trial; Sir Antony Sher Tells SARAH O'MEARA about His Jewish Forebears, Who Fled the Eastern European Pogroms and Became Brainwashed by Prejudice in Apartheid South Africa

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Persecution is a huge part of my experience," says Sir Antony Sher matter-of-factly.

The gay Jewish actor grew up in South Africa during apartheid - "where prejudice was the national sport" - and says his life has always been closely connected with oppression, although it hasn't always been directed at him.

Since moving to the UK at the age of 19 he has become one of Britain's most respected actors, winning an Olivier Award in 1985 for his performance of Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

His career has been marked by seminal performances of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and the brutal ruler Tamberlaine The Great for the RSC, and Disraeli in the Dlm Mrs Brown. He likes to play complicated men and his latest role is no exception.

In BBC Two's God on Trial, about Jews awaiting the gas chambers in Auschwitz and debating the justification for God, Sir Antony plays Rabbi Akiba, a man who finds his faith severely challenged.

He says that despite having just finished a tour of Primo, the self-titled theatre production based on the memoirs of famous Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, filming this drama took his breath away.

"I came to the rehearsals two weeks later and thought because I knew a lot about the subject I'd be OK. But it was very intense and I was glad that my bit came later on because I was in awe of what the other actors were doing," he says.

The 90-minute drama is based on a mythical story of a mock trial said to have taken place in a camp blockhouse at Auschwitz over the course of one day, among Jews waiting to go into the gas chamber.

Some prisoners charge that God has broken his covenant with the Jews - his chosen people - by failing to protect and care for them, and must be judged for this crime.

Both a trustee for the Holocaust Education Trust, and brought up in a Jewish household (although he is non-practising), Sir Antony believes we can never talk too much about the Holocaust.

"One of the things that really depressed Primo Levi was that in his own lifetime he saw the rise of neo-fascism in Europe, people denying what had happened and putting on swastikas again,"he says.

From a personal point of view, the actor - who was knighted in 2000 for his service to British theatre - understands how easily it is to become brainwashed by prejudice.

"When I toured Primo in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela and I talked about how apartheid was a step on the road to Auschwitz.

"You just have to start with the belief that someone else is an inferior form of life, and that can lead people to believe that it's okay to kill. As a child in South Africa I learned the alphabet, that one and one was two and that blacks were inferior."

Sir Antony's character is silent for most of God On Trial. Used to playing characters who have a lot to say for themselves, he admits to being surprised when he got the script. …