by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
As the Fall season is about to begin, one remembers some of the fascinating shows that have since closed but bear talking about again. One of the big features of the spring was "Primo" a dramatization of "Survival In Auschwitz," a memoir by the important Italian writer Primo Levi, which the actor Antony Sher adapted for the stage. "Primo" was undoubtedly an important play and a hit--not surprising considering its subject matter. On the other hand, as a strictly theatrical piece it raised some interesting questions. Can the story of the Holocaust be successfully dramatized for the theater? Of course Steven Spielberg was more than triumphant with his movie "Schindler's List" but that's the movie and the difference between the two art forms is obvious.
"Primo" was a one man show. Antony Sher stands on undecorated stage alone (against a bleak dark background), a chair for a prop, and no help from photos or special effects. For over two hours he narrates the excruciating daily life of Primo Levi in the death camp. And it is an agonizing story told with extraordinary details. Levi left nothing out. From the moment he is thrown into the cattle car train to his incarceration and ultimate survival, Primo Levi reveals the most gruesome brutalities and unbearable conditions he suffered under the Nazis.
In an effort to distract nothing from the story, Sher narrates directly to the audience using only his body to express his thoughts, and in a voice that lacked any sense of outrage. Instead he expressed a curious bewildered naivety that made the performance all the more unusual, but less theatrical. The writing spared nothing; the details were so precise that I noticed one person kept her fingers in her ears and sat with closed eyes; apparently she could not take it.
But here's the question: despite all the harrowing material, (and maybe because of it) "Primo," as it is written, does not come off as a theater piece. It remains as it had been written--a book--a narrative without any dramatization so that it never lost its essential form. In fact, the empty stage with one actor holding forth for over two hours, resulted in a strain for those in the audience who come to the theater to look and not only to listen. And though Antony Sher is a fine actor, he failed to make the personality and inner being of Levi clear. His concentration was on the detailed torture Levi endured but it was told and not shown dramatized. . Could this story have been conceived in any other way, or was it impossible to do justice to such a story on stage without all the accoutrements that Speilberg used in the movie.
Further perplexing is Primo Levi's suicide after his remarkable survival, a tragedy mentioned or alluded to; Sher stuck only to the memoir. It might have been fascinating had there been an epilogue disclosing what happened to Levi afterwards. He was a important writer, a thinker, an intellectual and a mysterious man, more mysterious because his suicide, particularly because he survived Auchwitz, is still in dispute. He fell or jumped from the balcony of a staircase (he left no note); it could have been an accident, some say, but suicide is more likely. Levi's tragic end might have made a more theatrical play and possibly thrown more light on the horrible psychological consequences of his experience in Auchwitz.
But not to be overlooked despite the questions I raised is the audience. Throughout the performance, they sat dumbfounded, spellbound, deadly quiet, not a cough, not a shuffle, not a movement could be heard. At the end, they stood up and applauded. Silence would have been more appropriate but New York audiences cannot resist standing for all performances no matter what. Clearly Antony Sher did deserve the thunder. So the questions I raised might be irrelevant. Nevertheless they are questions.
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
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