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A CurtainUp Review

Anthony Sher plays Primo for a Limited Broadway Run
By Simon Saltzman

When the most powerful country in the world thumbs its nose at the rule of law and human rights, it grants a license to others to commit abuse with impunity--Secretary General Irene Khan in the forward to Amnesty Internationalís 2005 Annual Report.

It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944; that is, after the German Government decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average lifespan of the prisoners destined for elimination --Primo Levi

Whether a theater critic is willing to admit it or not, an event can occur or words may be spoken just before a play that could have an impact and possibly alter oneís objectivity. Just prior to curtain time at the Music Box Theater I unwittingly made a remark to an acquaintance (of the fourth estate) about how topical this play was considering the recent disclosure by Senator Richard Durbin of an email he received from an FBI agent who had, after numerous occasions visiting Guantanamo, summarized in detail the particularly cruel and inhuman interrogation techniques being used on the detainees. (Senator Durbin was inexplicably forced to offer an apology for suggesting that these techniques are used by repressive regimes, including the Nazis). The acquaintanceís response to my statement: "If it takes torture to get the terrorists to talk, then Iím all for it," certainly stopped me in my tracks. What that comment also did was to make me aware of how we all tend to fix the facts to suit the agenda. I watched and listened with a lump in my throat for what happened then and how I was filtering it through what is happening now.

Although we may argue that nothing has rivaled the Holocaust as an example of mass cruelty at its most bestial and depraved, Primo Leviís descriptions of the lives ruined and lost in detention camps have an indisputable correlation to those currently bearing witness to ethnic cleansing and wholesale extermination. And more to the point, the unconscionable abuse of human rights in US operated internment camps such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, not to mention the increased outsourcing of "enemy combatants" by the US to countries where torture is deemed acceptable.

In light of CurtainUp London-based theater critic Lizzie Loveridgeís astute and praise-filled review of Primo (see below), with which I am in complete accord, my reaction to the docudrama now on Broadway was as incalculably influenced and processed by the spare and gripping intensity of Antony Sherís performance, as it was by current horrific events. That this drama offers theatergoers a rare opportunity to see the extraordinary primarily London-based Sher (who earned a Best Actor Tony-nomination for Stanley) is reason enough to scurry for tickets.

Except for the single set of looming grey cement walls with an arched entry and one chair, there is little to distract us from Sherís almost studious, but audience-friendly narrative during which one could hear a pin drop. There are sound effects, including a transport trainís wheels on a track, the drip of a faucet, and the chilling sound of a military marching band, but these serve the play almost subliminally.

Sher, looking somewhat professorial, stands and moves or sits quite alone as Primo Levi, the object of designer David Howeís extraordinarily shadowed lighting (a re-creation of the original lighting by London designer Paul Pyant). Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist, whose 1947 memoir If This Is a Man serves as the basis of Sher's adaptation. the play. Under Richard Wilsonís invisibly precise direction, Sherís pose, demeanor, and presentation are deceptively and effectively honest in the extreme.

The power of Leviís story lies in the way the horrific events are described by a man of science. There is not a trace of melodramatic embroidery, but Sher has no difficulty connecting to us. The play begins with Levi having already re-entered society and written extensively about his eleven months in Auschwitz so that you could call it a memory play that Levi shares with us with an ease and scholarly directness that belies his eventual death by suicide.

The journey begins on almost airless transport train where, crushed against the wall by the bodies of the other prisoners, Leviís notices how quickly he has become disoriented. As with all the prisoners at the Lager, Levi recalls being stripped of all clothing, his entire body shaved of hair and the branding of his number 174517 on his left forearm. Nameless except for his number, he talks of the struggle to survive, each day bringing new infuriating issues, such as the raging infection that comes from wearing improperly sized wooden shoes, the lack of drinking water and food, and mostly the fear of getting so ill that you will be prematurely sent to the gas chamber.

Notwithstanding oneís familiarity with Holocaust history, the play becomes unique as Leviís education as a chemist lands him a useful job in a clean lab, where except for the humiliation of being called a "stink-jude," by a group of Aryan girls who sit around and smoke, he befriends Alberto, another chemist. It is actually quite hard to describe how Sher is able to keep us in his grip without resorting to emotional peaks and valleys. Though he managse a few wryly observed quips that get laughs, more often than not it is the loss of friends that tug us in the other direction.

Sher builds up tension in his narrative until it virtually explodes by the end of the play with the expectancy liberation by the Russians.

At the end, we are moved, not so much by what Levi has endured, but by the shame of what he has witnessed: "Itís a shame. We know this shame. Itís the shame that swamped us after the selections and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage. Itís the shame that the just man feels at another manís crime. . .a feeling of guilt that such a thing even exists." (Review based on July 14th performance (Bastille Day). Running time, directorial and credits are the same as at the Royal National.

Primo will continue at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street (212/239-6200) through 8/07/05 (the run having begun 7/08/05 and officially opened on 7/11/05F. The performance schedule is Tuesday through Saturday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM, Sunday at 3 PM. Tickets: Orchestra $86.25, Mezzanine $86.25 and $76.25

Primo in London, reviewed
by Lizzie Loveridge
The music drives them like the wind drives dead leaves. The dance of the dead men.
---Primo Levi

Antony Sher as Primo Levi
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Antony Sher and Richard Wilson, both men are friends, conceived this one-man production based on the writings of Primo Levi. Sher would write and perform the piece and Wilson would direct.

Primo Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist who spent a year in Auschwitz and who survived to bring us one of the most accurate and moving descriptions of the inhumanity that was the Holocaust. I have a friend who, like Primo Levi, survived the terrible existence in the camps. She rarely talks about it but I know that she will carry the terrible burden of being a survivor all her days. Being a Holocaust survivor isn't actually about surviving, it is a life full of memories of who was lost and what it was that selected you out to be different Primo is the best and simplest of theatre, understated, gentle, effective but searing, the aftermind of which stays with you hour after hour, returning to jolt your brain, to claw you away from your apathetic existence.

What is most effective is the simple staging of Primo Levi's writings. In an age when we have access to miraculous, holographic and video devices, there is no use of archive material; there are no images to detract from the words, the description of his journey to, and life in, Auschwitz. This production has no other people, , just Sher bearded, dressed simply in slacks and a cardigan as Primo Levi himself appeared in his post war existence. The acting gestures too are so subtle, so natural, that one has to be especially aware to notice them at all.

Wilson uses the space well, shifts of lighting for a change of place, and allowing Sher to withdraw momentarily and return to another part of the bare stage with its plain backdrop of painted brick for a different mood. The pace too varies so that in ninety minutes, our attention is fixed.

I think what is most remarkable, even surprising, about the writing is its humility-- a complete lack of resentment and anger as Primo Levi records how people were reduced to sheep as everything was taken away, "our clothes, our shoes, even our hair" so that sheep image changes to one of pink worms. The details range from the hierarchy of concentration camp numbers to the portrait of the Polish countryside he saw around the camp when he was selected to work as a chemist, green meadows, a steeple, the people he saw when working outside, girls in clean clothes eating bread and jam. Even the simplest of observations makes an impact. Primo Levi's writing skilfully uses contrast. One of his earliest observations is of the band playing music which is cheery and light, in contrast to the plight that the musicians find themselves in. Then there is the cruelty of the Polish winter "where seven out of ten will die and those that don't will suffer all day, every day."

When I went to see the play I had my doubts about whether theatre was the right medium to tell Primo Levi's story. Was it necessary for this great man's words to be staged? Should his books not be left to speak for themselves? Is such an adaptation really theatre rather than a reading? My answer now is that Primo speaks for itself. It is an unforgettable experience. At the end of Sher's performance, the audience was appreciative but almost too moved to clap and cheer. We knew we had seen a magnificent performance. Sher held the stage but the solemnity of issues here necessarily dwarfs even the greatest of individual performance.

Written by Primo Levi
Adapted by Antony Sher
Directed by Richard Wilson

Starring: Antony Sher
Set Designer: Hildegarde Bechtler
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
Sound: Rich Walsh
Music: Jonathan Goldstein
Running time: One hour thirty minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 15th December 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th September 2004 performance at the Cottesloe, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube/Rail: Waterloo)
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