Antony Sher is an English actor, and the great virtue of Primo, his one-man show based on the writings of Primo Levi, is a characteristically English virtue: discretion. Casually dressed, bespectacled, and spade-bearded, he saunters, almost slouches, onto the half-lit stage, his hands in his pockets, and begins to speak, in a high, light, precise voice. Only the meaning of the words tells you that what is being described is something largely unimaginable: Levi’s 1943 arrest by the Gestapo, his identification as a Jew, and his shipment to Auschwitz.
Sher’s gestures are few, his movements fewer. Removing his spectacles stands in for the experience of being stripped naked to wait in line for hours under the camp guards’ eyes. In another sense, the action typifies the experience of Primo, from which virtually everything resembling spectacle has been painstakingly removed. An occasional burst of light at this or that point on the darkened stage indicates a change of scene. The only object onstage is a single chair. Apart from the deliberately grating, tinny sound of Nazi marching-band tunes, music is kept to a sparse minimum, marking transitions or moments of intense feelings—and even that minimal use of it feels intrusive.
After literally thousands of attempts in plays and films, the experience of the death camps is still impossible to render onstage. In opting for an evening of discreet understatement, Sher and his director, Richard Wilson, have chosen an honorable way out of the insurmountable task. They rely on Levi’s meticulous prose, spoken by Sher with lucid, graceful shadings, to create the uncreateable effect of the experience that is still, far too many genocides later, only minimally comprehensible.
The high stature of Primo Levi (1919-1987) among the camp survivors who have contributed their testimony to the vast body of Holocaust literature comes precisely from his ability to bring the experience close to the reader, to make it specific and immediate. A chemist by training, Levi found in the experience of Auschwitz an opportunity for exact, scientifically minute observation, and for a harrowing exercise in the disciplined art of memory. The Holocaust became the transfiguring fire in which he purified his pellucid style, conveying what he had lived through with a clarity as numbing and appalling as it is wondrous. In a sense, this extraordinary effort of will was his undoing: The notion that this hero, who could bring artistic and philosophic triumph out of the flames of the crematoria, was impelled by his memories to commit suicide still ranks as one of the last century’s great moral defeats, a setback in the battle being waged all over the world today against those whose motivating force is the spirit of death.
To say that Sher conveys the torment of Levi’s experience would be a fib. What he does is stand by it, with dignity, allowing the terse, devastating sentences of Levi’s prose to do as much work as they can. With the rare exception of a very few moments of intense feeling, Sher functions here as an enabler and presenter of a greater artist’s truth rather than as its living embodiment. While the grip of the text, with its instant evocation of this nightmare life, is infallible and sustained, long stretches of Sher’s urbane reading feel paler than they should, lacking the pain that lies behind Levi’s immaculately balanced phrases: Words that could only have been written in blood appear to float by on water.
This is, one has to say, probably better than the alternative of attempting to underscore with gratuitous histrionics an emotional condition that is already beyond description. To a degree one can be grateful for Sher’s art of discreet, distanced understatement. That it does not go the full way toward communicating what Levi saw and felt in the dead world where an insane arbitrary power had reduced human beings to anonymous numbers is to report a sadness, not to hand down a critical indictment. Sher undertook this work out of devotion to the blazing ice-cold truth that Levi’s writing carries; he deserves respect. Any sense of self-aggrandizement is as absent from his results as all other forms of misguided emotionality. That what is left when all such nonessentials are purged away might not be enough to help the audience grasp the full value of Levi’s achievement may be a moral problem for that audience rather than for Sher, who is certainly doing his best to fulfill his material’s demands.
At the same time, I can’t help remembering a solo performance of what might be described as an antithetical work of survivor literature, George Bartenieff’s rendering of the second half of Victor Klemperer’s diary. Klemperer was spared the camps; the night before he was to report for deportation, Allied bombs leveled his home city of Dresden, enabling him not only to escape but to preserve his diary, a document that is to civilian Jewish life under the Nazis what Levi’s work is to the life of the camps. Despite a less helpfully simple staging than Sher’s, Bartenieff was able to make me feel the impact of what Klemperer endured; his guilt over the theft of a senile neighbor’s butter ration is more tangible to me, as I write, than Sher’s gratitude for the gift of bread which tells Levi that the Germans have fled and civilization is beginning to be restored, though I only witnessed the latter yesterday, and Bartenieff’s piece was staged four years ago.