On Broadway, Bearing Witness to a Survivor’s Story

By Pamela Renner

Published July 08, 2005, issue of July 08, 2005.
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“To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as creating one,” reflects actor Sir Antony Sher, in his latest role as renowned 20th-century writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. A scientist as well as a writer, Levi lived out his post-Auschwitz life as a head chemist at a paint factory in Turin, Italy, while penning three memoirs and numerous works of fiction, and leading what appeared to be a tranquil and deeply satisfying family life. Biographers and novelists have speculated about his 1987 death, caused by falling down a flight of stairs, and yet the greater mystery, by far, is still his life, with its determined refusal of rancor.

Sher is not the only actor who has been drawn to the story of Levi’s past, but he is the only one to convince the Levi estate to allow him to adapt the literary work originally titled “If This Is a Man” for performance. After critically praised engagements in London and in Cape Town, South Africa, Sher brings his one-man play, “Primo,” to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre for a limited run, beginning July 8. Speaking by phone from Stratford, England, Sher reflected on what role live theater might play in bearing witness to the concentration camp experience.

“I don’t believe that it is possible to put Auschwitz on stage or film in any conventional sense,” he said, “but the survivors are getting older, and although we’ve got them on film — in the great documentary by Claude Lanzmann, ‘Shoah’ — maybe the theater can also contribute to continuing what Primo Levi was passionate about: that people must never forget. All these stories must be told, again and again.”

When Sher was preparing to play the role of Levi, he and his director, Richard Wilson, took a trip to Poland to visit the site of Auschwitz. Raised in Cape Town as a secular Jew, Sher moved to England in 1968 to complete his training as an actor. After growing up under apartheid, he found the social cosmos of London to be liberating for him, both as a gay man and an artist. Knighted in 2000 and considered one of Britain’s leading actors, Sher has appeared as a succession of Shakespearean villains for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but even playing a Macbeth or an Iago didn’t call for the total immersion that “Primo” demanded. While keeping a rigorous journal, Sher traveled to Turin and to Auschwitz.

“When you arrive, it’s just an ordinary car park, and there’s an ordinary brick building, which is the museum, and so you don’t see anything,” he said. “Then you turn a corner, and suddenly there it is: the gate — the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gate. It’s kind of like something comes up from the ground and shakes me. There’s an awareness that both as a Jew and a gay man, I could have been walking through that gate as a prisoner, not just as a visitor. I think moments like that bring it very close.”

Sher and Wilson struggled to find an emotional idiom that would do justice to Levi’s narrative. They wanted to capture the sense of Levi in midlife, long since returned to his comfortable home and beloved family in Turin, yet haunted by the past. And both Sher and his director were adamant that no histrionics should color the performance. “With a subject like the Holocaust, an audience can smell authenticity,” he said.

The play received strong notices in London for its unadorned and naturalistic acting; one critic noted that viewers were so moved by Sher’s turn as Levi that they reacted with awed silence at the performance’s end.

During the play’s original rehearsal period, Wilson conducted a series of arduous acting exercises designed to fill Sher with an insider’s knowledge of Levi’s deportation. The actor was confined in the back of a truck, bullied and humiliated, and made to relive antisemitic jeers he’d endured as a teenager in South Africa. But after all the hectoring, true authenticity arrived in the reserved, gentle person of Trude Levi, a Hungarian concentration camp survivor (no relation to Primo) who visited the workshop to speak about her experiences in the Lager.

“She’s 80 now, quite frail of body and incredibly alert of mind. She spoke with us for an hour and a half, exactly the length of my piece. She sat so still and spoke with such urgency and restraint, simply telling us what had happened to her. It was not in any conventional sense dramatic, yet I was absolutely riveted. And when she left, the director, Richard Wilson, said to me: ‘That’s what we’ve got to try and achieve.’”

Later on, Levi came to the theater to see the show, and Sher found himself as nervous as could be. In the lobby after the performance, he sidled up to the slight, white-haired octogenarian, trying to gauge her reaction. “That day in the workshop when she’d spoken to us, there was not a trace of emotion. Now suddenly she was quite different, somehow.” A vulnerability and pain had risen to the surface, feelings she didn’t allow herself to experience when she recounted her own history to the workshop. Sher realized she was deeply affected by his play: “Her reaction was the best review that I got.”

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