God On Trial: a new 90-minute drama for BBC Two
Sir Antony Sher plays Akiba
A Polish newcomer, Akiba is an old-fashioned rabbi from the countryside. He is a Melamed, or religious teacher, and a healer who has committed all holy writings to memory, the Living Talmud.
He is composed and dispassionate and there's something very compelling about him. When he eventually speaks, everyone is drawn to him.
Antony Sher describes Akiba as: "Not just an ordinary rabbi; he is a very holy man. We learn that on the transport to the camp, he has been a great spiritual support to the others.
"He is regarded almost as a living saint by the other people from the Polish village that he's from."
He agreed to play the role as soon as he read the script: "I just think it's terribly important to keep doing pieces about the Holocaust again and again, for every new generation.
"It's not a subject we must ever get used to, because it has already happened again in places like Rwanda and the old Yugoslavia, and it will keep happening unless we learn the lessons of it.
"So the piece was quite irresistible for me to do once I found out what it was about."
God On Trial is an unusual and demanding piece, shot multi-camera in just 11 days: "I can't actually see another way of doing this. The drama takes place almost entirely on a single set, the dormitory hut, and all of the actors and the supporting artists were on the set the whole time.
"Because the sequences were so intense, the atmosphere in the room just built up naturally, something I have only ever known to happen on stage before.
"The fact that there were three cameras meant you never knew if you were being filmed and I loved that – the sense of the cameras eavesdropping on this extraordinary debate that was taking place.
"It felt as if something was being captured that was unique, a tremendous way of working."
Akiba says very little until the climax of the drama, when he delivers what Mark Redhead, Hat Trick's Head of Drama, describes as "a blistering seven minute tour de force".
Sir Antony says: "It was a very interesting departure for me – normally I play characters who never stop speaking!
"There was something very special about the fact that Akiba just sits through most of the trial and then is moved to speak at the end – with quite extraordinary eloquence, I think, and with quite surprising anger."
He continues: "It was very satisfying to do. It was also something of a relief, because I'd been forced to miss rehearsals due to other commitments, and the first few days of filming when all I had to do was sit and watch the others was absolutely terrifying.
"I felt that I was watching a master-class in screen acting, some people who I greatly admire, and the thought of then having to get up and do it myself…
"I suppose it's something to do with the subject matter, the fact that everyone comes to the drama with such respect and commitment which produced a very special quality of work.
"I felt very honoured and privileged to work with such a fine group of actors. Because of the nature of the piece – the fact that it was a trial – people tended to have a set piece at one time or another, and that was wonderful to watch.
"So I was grateful I had the chance to watch and to learn before my turn came."
One of the most moving sequences for Antony was when he had his head and beard shaved, part of the early procedure when people first arrived in the camp: "Because my hair and beard were long when I arrived to start filming, we were able to shave it all off for real in the sequence.
"Andy, the director, and I talked about it and decided it had to be a kind of assault on the character, because in fact he changes after this event.
"We could only film it once, obviously, but we did have the three cameras, which was an advantage. I was quite relieved to discover that the man who played the barber was actually a professional in real life! We asked him to be as rough as possible, because that wouldn't obviously be his instinct.
"And when we finally went for it, I found it quite shocking, being handled that roughly, and to have enormous scissors flashing around your face.
"When it was finished we had to go back and join the others, and Jack Shepherd said to me: 'You look totally stunned in a way that you couldn't act,' and that's exactly what I felt – totally stunned by the experience."
Antony has played the part of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi to great acclaim both on stage and, more recently, on screen.
An Italian Jew trained in chemistry, Levi was just 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Through his memoirs he became a world-renowned author.
Antony adapted this masterpiece into a one-man show which played in London, New York and Cape Town (Sher's birthplace) and was later filmed as a co-production between HBO and the BBC. He was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Actor after Primo was broadcast on BBC Four.
He says: "When Primo played on Broadway, Elie Wiesel, the other great Holocaust witness of the last century, came to the opening night. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his works including Night, his book about being in Auschwitz, which made as deep an impression on me as Levi's testimony. I knew that he and Primo Levi had been very close.
"But the crucial difference between the two authors is that Wiesel retained his religious beliefs after Auschwitz, while Primo famously wrote: 'There was Auschwitz, therefore God does not exist,' which is a very powerful statement."
Feeling an odd mixture of excitement and guilt, Antony asked to be introduced to Wiesel: "I had a sense of trespassing. However well I had done my research, I was still only acting, only pretending to be in a situation that real survivors had lived through.
"I said to him: 'I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during your discussions with Primo about the war,' and he said that he did feel betrayed by God in Auschwitz, but that Primo didn't because he came from a family of agnostics and had no god to blame.
"Then, unexpectedly, he made me laugh – mentioning that he had written a play about suing God over Auschwitz. 'Yet, despite it all,' I said, 'you kept your faith.'
"He answered with precision. 'Not quite. I have a wounded faith,' whereas Primo Levi no longer believed in God."
On Broadway, Primo played to packed, mostly Jewish houses: "Their reaction to the piece was extraordinary. They sat so silently, it was as if they were collectively holding their breath.
"I wish I could take the credit, but the explanation was outside the usual rules of theatre. As one New Yorker told me: 'After the war, more Holocaust survivors came here than even Israel. Everyone in your audience knows someone who went through it. To us, this story is very personal.'"
Antony adds: "Having said that, I don't think God On Trial is about Judaism. It's about faith and that's something we can all relate to.
"On 9/11 when those planes struck the Twin Towers there must have been people of all religions inside the buildings, including some with the same religion as the men flying those planes.
"The people who survived that attack and the relatives of those who didn't must have had to ask questions like the ones we ask in the film about where God was in this terrible event."
He continues: "People should watch this film because we must look at the Holocaust again and again. That way we can, perhaps, avoid this happening again.
"The Nazis were not people from Mars; they were civilised and intelligent; so it could be any one of us, and that's the scary thing."
Shortly after God On Trial completed production, there was a Government announcement that two children from each school in England will be sent to Auschwitz.
Antony thinks that is a very important move: "I'm a trustee of The Holocaust Educational Trust, which is behind this initiative. We regularly send school parties of both teachers and pupils to Auschwitz. It's a terribly good thing.
"They're briefed beforehand and again when they get back, as obviously it can be quite traumatic for some of the kids – and the adults too.
"I wish everyone in the world could be made to go there. It has a profound effect."
He concludes: "Although there have been many dramas based on the Holocaust, God On Trial is different. It's a remarkable thought that in Auschwitz they might have put God on trial, and it is an extraordinary and unique subject which makes for a very different, very gripping courtroom drama."