nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 10, 2005
For the next month, at least, theatregoers here in the New York will have the privilege of witnessing Antony Sher's portrayal of Primo Levi in his remarkable and very necessary solo play Primo. It's neither to be missed nor taken lightly: this powerful evocation of life and survival in the most horrific of circumstances is harrowing, affecting drama and, as well, a deeply significant human experience. Sher acts here not just as performer but as citizen of the world, putting before his audience a visceral document of not just The Holocaust but all of them—all the acts of terror and injustice and intolerance that somehow are permitted by so-called civilized people on our planet. Are we prepared to really hear what Sher is telling us?
Primo is based on a book called If This Is a Man (Se questo e un uomo in the original Italian) which was written in 1947 by Primo Levi. Levi was a Jew from Turin who became a chemist and, as a politicized young man living under Mussolini's reign during World War II, an anti-fascist activist. After the Germans invaded Northern Italy in 1943, Levi was arrested, and in February 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Primo details the eleven months Levi spent there, from his arrival until his "liberation," by the Russian Army, the following January.
Actor Antony Sher adapted Levi's memoir into this dense, compact, one-man play, creating scenes and vignettes out of excerpts from the book that together tell a story that demands to be told and must never never be forgotten.
It's awesomely brutal, what Levi describes for us; but his approach is matter-of-fact, gentle, even occasionally bemused. He wonders, for example, upon arrival at the camp—after four days with no food or drink, and after having spent hours naked in the barracks awaiting an utterly unknown fate—whether he's caught in the middle of some weird German idea of a practical joke. His sense of humor helps us stay centered and anchored as hope drains away from Levi's predicament. I can't remember a more vivid description of what life in a concentration camp was like: the constant hunger (and its companion in the winter, constant cold); the painful, wearying rituals of forced marches and forced labor; the systematic stripping away of personal and human trappings from each and every prisoner. Sher, as Levi, conjures the pace, the feel, and the smell of the place; he reminds us of all manner of details of existence in these cruel conditions that we probably hadn't thought about before, everything from going months without seeing a single member of the opposite sex to the ugly implications of a tattooed ID number that runs six digits long. (Levi was number 174,517; when he naively inquires of one of the longer-term prisoners if the rumors about the gas chambers are true, he is asked in return whether he sees 174,516 other people still living in the camp.)
The detail is relentless, awful, and vitally necessary. Levi's prose conjures Auschwitz so clearly that Primo is sometimes hard to listen to, and Sher brings the words and their underlying meanings to life so nakedly that Primo is sometimes hard to watch.
But, for all of that, Primo is not finally about documenting the towering monument to human cruelty that was Auschwitz and the Third Reich's Final Solution, though it does so very effectively. No, Primo is not about what happened, but rather the larger question of how and why it was allowed to happen. At the very center of the play is an account of a day when Levi and several other prisoners were given a chemistry test to determine if they might become "specialists" to serve the Reich in a laboratory (German labor being in short supply by the end of the war). Levi's description of the German scientist who administered the test—who looked at him as if through aquarium glass, Levi tells us—is one of the very few times that he allows righteous outrage to surface in his narrative. "I will judge you," he says to this man in absentia; a judgment not of evil, for that's not what he's conjured here, but of the terrible banality of complacency and arrogance, of self-satisfaction and entitlement.
Later, Levi offers another anecdote, about three young German civilian women working in the lab, one of whom remarks—it's December of 1944—how the year has "flown by." Such is the potency of the carelessness wrought from privilege. Is it a coincidence that Sher has picked this particular historical moment to share Primo with us? Or is there something we can learn here?
In any event, when these fleeting encounters with a cruel enemy are juxtaposed against the rare illuminating moments of sacrifice and kindness—which do come to pass from time to time, even at Auschwitz—the contrast is breathtaking. Primo offers testimony to the basest part of human nature, and also to the purest. It sees the Holocaust not as a sensational horror story to shock and scare us, but as an evidence to be dissected, probed, and understood. In the end, the thing we must be most vigilant about guarding is our humanity.
Sher's work as adapter and actor, if it's not already clear, is exemplary. His collaborators—among them director Richard Wilson, composer Jonathan Goldstein, and sound designer Rich Walsh—make seamless contributions to the piece; set/costume designer Hildegard Bechtler has crafted a spare, very effective environment for the play, while Paul Pyant has provided meticulously evocative lighting for Primo that is subtle but invaluable.
The engagement at the Music Box Theatre is scheduled to last less than a month. Do not hesitate to experience Primo before it's over.