Primo Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt present The National Theatre of Great Britain Production of Antony Sher in Primo, based on "If This Is A Man" by Primo Levi, adapted by Antony Sher. Scenic and costume design by Hildegard Bechtler. Original lighting design by Paul Pyant. Lighting recreated by David Howe. Sound design by Rich Walsh. Music composed by Jonathan Goldstein. Technical supervisor Larry Morley. Production supervisor Ernest Hall. Directed by Richard Wilson. The Producers wish to express their appreciation to Theatre Development Fund for its support of this production.
"It was my good fortune to be exported to Auschwitz only in 1944," states Sir Antony Sher at the start of Primo, the one-man show inspired by Italian chemist Primo Levi that Sher himself adapted and has brought from London's National Theatre to Broadway's Music Box. The vaguest intimation that even a sliver of good could arise from a year spent in the most infamous of Nazi concentration camps is a startling way to promise an arresting, unusual evening devoted to a first-hand account of some of the 20th century's most horrific atrocities.
That Primo Levi survived to tell the tale - and did so, in a minutely detailed and harrowing fashion in his book If This Is A Man (published in America most famously as Survival In Auschwitz) - is something of a modern miracle. What shines most radiantly through the course of this 90-minute show is Sher's profound respect for Levi, the horrors he lived through, and the courage he marshaled to tell his story.
Sher lets Levi do the talking, by retaining in his adaptation and delivery all the plaintive, poetic qualities of the original writing. Usually quietly but always distinctly, he recounts Levi's major travails and minor successes with an impressive focus and earnestness of focus that does evoke the basic spirit of Levi. And, indeed, when Sher opens his mouth, in timbre, tenaciousness, and tentativeness, the voice speaking the lines seems to emanate from a markedly different time and different circumstances than our own. It's a stirring trick of the kind that only great actors can pull off.
Unfortunately, it's the most noticeable one in Primo, which otherwise lacks the spark necessary to make a provocative play out of evocative writing. As talented and experienced an actor as Sher is, memoirs don't magically become theatre merely because he recites them on a Broadway stage. Hal Holbrook recently demonstrated that he still has the knack for bringing non-theatrical writings to life in Mark Twain Tonight!, and helps them exist beyond the page; Patrick Stewart has done much the same with his one-man A Christmas Carol. But if you've read Levi's book, you've seen Primo.
It's only through Sher's determination that the show he's fashioned is never boring. But it's also never exciting, and there are no opportunities here to learn anything new about the Holocaust or Auschwitz. So much has been written and performed about these subjects in the past that this format feels like a retread that's content with simply presenting Levi's words instead of enhancing them for the stage. Sher's devotion to Levi cannot be questioned; the wisdom in presenting Levi's work in this manner must be.
Sher and director Richard Wilson have done nothing to suggest the stifling, oppressive atmosphere of "the house of the dead" that functions almost as another character in Levi's chronicle. (Hildegard Bechtler's set design is a generically institutional wall-and-door-frame combo that David Howe lights indiscriminately.) Worse yet, what prisoners appear in the recollections Sher has stitched together are devoid of personality and individualization, regardless of their importance to Levi's life. The lack of anything to suggest a real world or populace inside the camp's boundaries makes little that transpires emotionally engaging.
Only in a few disconnected moments, scattered throughout the early portions of the show, are there suggestions of dramatic possibilities that have just not been realized. Most haunting is the train ride to Auschwitz, represented by sound designer Rich Walsh as a regular, barely audible thumping that, as it slows and eventually stops, echoes the beating of a passionate heart soon to be muted or silenced entirely. A brief time later, Levi's baptism by tattoo is a brief, sobering look at the dehumanization of the concentration camps.
But the key instinct of survival is never made a powerful force. Sher portrays the man's struggles with an intellectual, even academic detachment that recalls feelings through a thick haze but never makes them tangible. In the earliest scenes, there's no discernible passion or hope to be sucked away and eventually built up again; Levi speaks of the "bold white faces, sordid puppets" of the other prisoners, but Sher never conjures them for us; he relates the violent, crime-ridden culture time and again with words but never makes the struggle come alive for those of us who will never know such desperation.
It's that lack of communication that is Primo's most surprising omission. The oft-repeated statement "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it" has seldom seemed truer than with regard to the Nazis and similar terrorist regimes; it's easy to understand why the perpetuation of these stories, tragic as they might be, is considered vital in preventing them from happening again. But such stories can only have real impact when told in compelling ways; that never appears to be Sher's specific goal. It's hard to say what exactly Sher is trying for.
It's easy to determine that he never completely achieves it, and instead reduces Levi's words to a series of placeholders for a greater story he's not telling. Levi's great insights fly by quickly - "How can one man hit another without anger?" and "Existence in this place is war" are heard, but pass all but unnoticed. They, however, are easily retrievable by reading Levi's. The souls of those who perished at Auschwitz, theoretically the most tenable domain of the actor, prove the more significant and troubling loss.