"Primo" Bears Witness
Jana L. Perskie | New York, NY USA | 09/07/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Primo Levi, Italian Jewish novelist, autobiographer, chemist, essayist, humanist, survived Auschwitz to bear witness to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. He chose to keep alive "the memory of what happened in the heart of Europe, not very long ago,'' as a warning against fascism and politically organized hate. "'Primo' is an experiential account of a Nazi extermination camp rendered in exact and unsparing sensory detail."
Levi first gained fame with his autobiographical story of survival in Auschwitz, "If This Is A Man," 1947, ("Se Questoe Un Uomo"). During the final years of his life, he attempted to deal with his terrible survivor guilt, that he was not one of the millions killed. He wrote, "The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died."
In 1943, 24 year old Levi, a member of a Resistance group in northern Italy, was captured by the fascist militia and sent, along with 649 other Italian Jews, to Auschwitz. Only three of the 649 men lived to see the Germans' defeated. Primo Levi was one of them. His story is not a new one. The camp's freshmen inmates were quickly turned into demoralized, expendable slaves who were worked relentlessly with almost no food and little sleep, until they were ready to be disposed of in the gas chambers and crematoria. The men were broken by hunger, cold, disease and terror. After Levi's first year at Auschwitz, the rapid advance of the Red Army forced a hasty evacuation of the camp. Sick with scarlet fever, and unable to move on his own, he was left to die in the bitter cold, along with 800 other incapacitated inmates. Twenty thousand "healthy'' prisoners, those capable of walking, were force-marched into Germany and death. Almost none survived the trek.
"Primo," the DVD, is the film version of the brilliant theatrical production based on Levi's book, "If This Is A Man," better known in the US as "'Survival in Auschwitz.'' I was so fortunate to have seen the play live, onstage in New York. Like many people, I have read some powerful survivor memoirs, WWII histories and seen movies and filmed documentaries about the Holocaust - but to see and hear Primo Levi's experiences in his own words, interpreted by Sir Antony Sher is something I will never forget. At the end of the performance, no one applauded - and believe me Sir Antony's chilling adaptation was worthy of many curtain calls. The audience was simply spellbound and deeply moved. Sher had captured the spirit of Primo Levi. I felt as if he were in the auditorium with us. No one seemed capable of shattering the momentary silence. I remember wishing family and friends were there with me to share the experience. And now it is possible for them to do so. Robert Marshall of Heritage Theatre arranged to film this extraordinarily important drama, with Sher as Primo Levi, and Richard Wilson directing his performance. I just saw the DVD and it definitely captures the artistic experience of the theatrical production, its realism, intensity and atmosphere.
The DVD includes a 22-minute featurette which offers interviews with cast and crew. This is a great piece providing insight into the work of Primo Levi and the translation of it to the medium of theatre.
The stage is bare, stripped of any adornment except for Hildegard Bechtler's bare gray cell-like set, the haunting lighting effects by Paul Pyant and David Howe, and sound design by Rich Walsh.
Wearing a simple cardigan and spectacles, Antony Sher steps into a large empty space, looking like a somewhat ordinary intellectual. Yet, there is something in the way he stands, as if slightly off balance, that makes one look more closely. He exudes quiet intensity. As he begins to speak, with a matter-of-fact delivery, he conjures up images from the months he spent in the hell called Auschwitz. He explains the importance of a man's posture in terms of survival skills, and the curious information one can derive from the six-digit number tattooed on every inmate's arm. This is the underground culture of the soon-to-be-dead, where life expectancy for new arrivals is a mere eight weeks. Primo/Sher is our guide, as he wanders around the stage and leads us through the process of systematic dehumanization. His very body language is an echo of the camp inmate. The prisoners' dragging shuffle walk, created by ill-fitting wooden-soled shoes which caused blisters - the blisters became open sores which festered, became infected, and finally, disabled the wearer. Men who could no longer walk could no longer work - destination death. He mimics the never-ending lineups, the endless waiting for nothing to happen, or the reverse, the surprise selection. The Nazis play marching music, polkas, as the half dead shuffle off to work each day.
The audience also glimpses the bits of humanity, life-sustaining moments of compassion, which ultimately enabled Primo to survive psychologically, especially in the vignettes portraying a friendship Levi shared with a fellow Italian inmate. Anger comes through loud and clear also. At one point, describing what starvation feels like, he says, "Hunger exhausts but thirst enrages." And, watching another prisoner pray, thanking God that he has not been selected to go to the gas chambers, although fellow inmates go in his stead, he says, "If I was God, I would spit at his prayer!"
I cannot think of enough superlatives to describe this production adequately. I can only say that "Primo" hits home like "Shoah" does. May Primo Levi rest in peace.
"Primo" is an amazing performance. Get it!
Theatre & Teaching | Cooma NSW, Australia | 10/12/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Through "Primo", Anthony Sher has demonstrated how brilliant and powerful theatre can be, whilst tastefully showing all the respect that Primo Levi and his Auschwitz story deserve.
For those of us who don't live in London or New York, we must thank theatre practitioners like the great Sir Anthony Sher for producing these resources for an enthusiastic audience. I attempted to showed a section of the DVD to my senior drama students as an example of a monologue performance and they wouldn't let me turn it off!
I could easily write an essay on how great this performance is but in an attempt to offer a brief review, I will simply say that if you love theatre and great acting, this DVD is a must!
Judith L. Trachtman | phila, pa | 05/27/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I cannot think of an adjective to convey my feelings about this. I cannot call it enjoyable because the subject matter is far from that. It is, however, one of the best 1-man shows that I have ever seen. Antony Sher's performance was riveting. Without emotion he stands as a witness to the horrors that he, and others, endured. His descriptions of events are objective and detailed. The staging, use of a basically bare stage and very effective lighting, was exceptional! I saw it on Public TV and went on-line to order it the same night. Excellent production!"