Ethnic Theater - Jewish
Music Box Theatre, Manhattan
How do you speak of the unspeakable, understand the unknowable? How do you take on the Holocaust, without fear of trivializing it or falling far short of the mark? If we can come to any understanding, it must be through a single person’s experience. Astronomical numbers deal with the abstract, while the particular strikes with devastating impact.
And now Sir Antony Sher, a Jew born in South Africa and arguably England’s greatest actor of our time, takes on Primo Levi’s intensely personal story—thus enlightening us all. His one-man show, now on Broadway, is the production of the National Theatre of Great Britain.
Sher, under the direction of Richard Wilson, uses Levi’s postwar memo “If This Is a Man” to bring the story to life, excerpting the material from Levi’s book, written two years after his liberation. Levi, an Italian Jew who was shipped to Auschwitz in 1944, gives a day-by-day, moment-by-moment, account of his life in the camps. It is written in an objective, matter-of-fact style, allowing the facts to speak for themselves, as Levi moves from innocence to a kind of understanding. Survival is the driving instinct, and a bit of bread, rags or scrap papers can make the difference.
Levi manages to survive the camp’s horrors of starvation, thirst, deprivation, dehumanization and random killings by virtue of unexpected friendships and his own profession, that of a chemist. He is chosen, at one point, as a “specialized worker,” thus saved from the dreaded “selexia” and other refined horrors of the camp. (Selexia, he explains, is the systematic selection and murdering of the prisoners, to make room for new batches.)
Sir Antony creates a memorable Primo Levi, a middle-aged academic type looking back on his Auschwitz experience. Wearing glasses, cardigan and beard, he quietly moves back in time---and in the process takes on the camp shuffle or shivers naked in the cold. Every emotion, or lack of emotion, plays across his face, body, voice. This brilliant performance is Levi reliving the experience and taking us all with him. If there is any criticism to be made, it is to question Sir Antony’s cultured British accent, hardly appropriate to his character. Should Sher have proceeded with an Italian accent? Or would that have been a clownish touch?
Whether or not we want to move back to that time of horror, Sir Antony Sher and Primo Levi indeed take us on a memorable journey. It is a consummate performance.
-- Irene Backalenick
July 10, 2005