"How can one man hit another without anger?" The tone of quiet and frightened incredulity describes the acts of random violence perpetrated by German soldiers on Primo Levi and his fellow Jewish prisoners during their transportation to Auschwitz after Mussolini's sanction of the Final Solution in December 1943.
"How can one man hit another without anger?" The tone of quiet and frightened incredulity describes the acts of random violence perpetrated by German soldiers on Primo Levi and his fellow Jewish prisoners during their transportation to Auschwitz after Mussolini's sanction of the Final Solution in December 1943. And it sets the pitch for Antony Sher's one-man show Primo perfectly.
"I was fortunate," Levi says of his time in the concentration camp. Fortunate to be a "high number", one who arrived in the camps in 1944, as the war was coming to an end. Despite his terror, he observes that he is carrying a "comical air, as novices always do". Levi's eye for such detail is well served by Sher's adaptation.
Sher's eloquent programme note, detailing his visit to Auschwitz to research the piece with the director, Richard Wilson, brims with passion. As Sher is both a Jew and a gay man, anger is unsurprisingly at the periphery of his narrative. But for his stage adaptation of Levi's 1947 book If This Is a Man, Levi's account of his year in Auschwitz, he assumes a powerful and rational voice.
The words are relentlessly moving. But beyond the script, Sher and Wilson have created a night of startling theatricality, a salutary lesson in stage minimalism. With one man and an old wooden chair, they create claustrophobia as the prisoners are herded into a small room, naked, to await selection - the arbitrary process of deciding who, to borrow from the inmates' harrowing gallows humour, will leave through the gate and who will leave through the chimney. The next moment, the delicious solitude of a bunk bed that Primo has all to himself in the camp infirmary is evoked effortlessly by both performer and lighting designer, Paul Pyant, who illuminates Hildegard Bechtler's grim grey box of a set ingeniously.
Sher serves the words unerringly, his physicality a subtle and plaintive thing. When he is describing - many years later, as a free and healthy man - the events on arrival through the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gates, when inmates were deloused and stripped, his body shrinks away from the shame of his nudity. As he relates the myriad dehumanising experiences, it is as if his subconscious mind forces his body to throw shadows of horror.
His assertion of his good fortune in Auschwitz is no mere statement of defiance and courage - although Levi plainly possessed both. As he rakes through the shards of this Kristallnacht for humanity, his fortune is to find kindness, decency and love. His friend Alberto dalla Volta shares every scrap of extra food with him; it is such random acts that allow Levi to observe how humanity returns to the inmates almost the moment their captors leave. The perception illuminates the whole story and gives Sher, famed for his portrayal of outsiders, one of his best yet: the man who believed in hope in hell.
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