Antony Sher Actor, novelist, playwright. Sher, one of the most acclaimed British classical actors, appeared at the Royal Court in Snoo Wilson's The Glad Hand (1978) and in Churchill's influential Cloud Nine (1979). He has since been a regular presence on the London stage, most recently in his own play Primo at the National Theatre (2004). His first play, I.D., premiered at the Almeida Theatre in 2003. read more
Antony Sher has taken his one-man play of Primo Levi’s Holocaust memoir around the world and is amazed at the reaction of survivors
London : It is difficult to put Auschwitz on stage or screen. The subject carries too much sorrow, too much savagery, too much information about the worst that we can be. The conditions in the camp are formidably hard to simulate: the starvation, the sickness, the filth. But if you think you can overcome these obstacles, you find yourself engaged in a project different from any other. It doesn’t feel like a job. Instead, that infamous place of death expands your vision of life.
At any rate, that was what I experienced when I wrote a stage adaptation of If This Is a Man – Primo Levi’s literary masterpiece about his incarceration in Auschwitz – and performed it as a one-man show, Primo.
An Italian Jew, trained in chemistry, Levi was just 24 when he was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Through his memoirs he became a world-renowned author.
To confront the problems of staging Auschwitz, the director, Richard Wilson, and I decided to present the character of Levi in postwar mode (specs and beard, shirt and tie) in an abstract set (thick walls surrounding an empty space, with just one chair). We played Primo in London, New York and Cape Town and later filmed it in a co-production between HBO, the American television company, and the BBC.
It was after the opening night in New York that I had one of the remarkable encounters that characterised my whole journey. Our management held the traditional Broadway party at Sardi’s restaurant. I learnt that Elie Wiesel had seen the show and was present among the guests. I caught my breath. Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi are arguably the foremost witnesses to the Holocaust, and Wiesel’s book about being in Auschwitz, Night (part of the reason he won the 1986 Nobel peace prize), had made as deep an impression on me as Levi’s testimony.
As I was led across the room to meet Wiesel, I felt an odd mixture of excitement and guilt: a sense of trespassing. However well I had done my research, I was still only acting, only pretending to be in situations that real survivors had lived through.
Wiesel turned out to be a lean, neat figure in his mid-seventies with heavy features that made him look melancholic. But his spirit was light and conversation easy. I was most eager to talk about Levi himself, whom Wiesel had known well. He told me how he had spoken to Levi on the telephone just a few days before his shocking suicide in 1987: “I knew about Primo’s depressions, of course, but there was something different about this one, more serious. I offered to pay for him to fly to New York so that we could talk properly, but he said there was no point.”
A crucial difference between the two authors is that Wiesel retained his religious beliefs after Auschwitz, while Levi wrote: “There was Auschwitz, therefore God does not exist.” I said to Wiesel that I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during their discussions about God in Auschwitz. He replied: “I felt God betrayed me in Auschwitz; I blamed Him. Primo didn’t do this because he had no God: he was from a family of agnostics. There was no God to blame.”
Then, unexpectedly, he made me laugh – mentioning that he had written a play about suing God over Auschwitz.
“Yet despite it all,” I said, “you kept your faith.”
He answered with precision: “Not quite. I have a wounded faith.” As we said goodbye, he suddenly reached forward and hugged me.
On Broadway we played to packed, mostly Jewish houses, and their reaction to the piece was extraordinary. They sat so silently, it was as if they were collectively holding their breath. I wish I could take the credit, but the explanation was outside the usual rules of theatre. As one New Yorker told me: “After the war, more Holocaust survivors came here than even Israel. Everyone in your audience knows someone who went through it. To us, this story is very personal.”
It’s why Levi is a great writer and it’s why he reminds me of Shakespeare. Levi takes an epic scene as his backdrop – that hellish landscape of Auschwitz, teeming with dead bodies and living skeletons – but it’s the foreground that really fascinates him and speaks to us: the way that human beings respond to catastrophe.
Levi’s tender friendship with his fellow chemist Alberto, the charity supplied by the silent, heavy-drinking civilian worker Lorenzo, the mindless cruelty of the little Kapo Alex, the indifference of the German chemist Dr Pannwitz – these could be characters from a classic tragedy. Then there is Levi’s meticulous detail about the prisoners’ day-to-day existence. We might think we know what it was like to die in Auschwitz, but what was it like to live there?
During the Broadway run, Colin Callender, the head of HBO, came to see the show, visited my dressing room afterwards and offered to film it. I was astonished. TV executives don’t behave like that. And even though I knew that HBO made grown-up drama (Six Feet Under, The Sopranos), surely it would demand compromises. Surely the great American public wouldn’t tolerate me talking to the camera for one and a half hours. Surely they would need to see the other characters or have my monologue interspersed with newsreel footage of the camps. No, none of that – he wanted exactly what he had just witnessed on stage.
The theatre tour of Primo continued to affect me in deep and surprising ways. We played Cape Town, my birthplace, where I had never performed professionally before. And here something occurred that again you find with Shakespeare – Levi’s words freed themselves from their initial context and gave voice to a different time and place. Levi, an Italian Jew, could be speaking as a black man in apartheid South Africa when he talks of “the life of segregation forced on me by the racial laws”.
During the Cape Town run I visited Robben Island. Learning about the prison regime there, I wondered whether the authorities might not have used Levi’s testimony in the most perverse way possible: as a handbook for torture and humiliation. Levi tells how your initial survival in Auschwitz depended on two things: your ability to obey orders in a language you didn’t understand and your luck in being given shoes that fitted. On Robben Island the warders barked at the prisoners in Afrikaans (not a language most blacks speak) and issued uniforms and shoes arbitrarily, with no regard for anyone’s actual size. And with an accompanying rule that forbade the exchange of clothing.
Apartheid was one of the most appalling atrocities of the 20th century. It’s probably impossible to estimate the number of black people who quietly lost their lives, either physically or spiritually, between 1948 and 1994, a period now known as the Old South Africa.
During my childhood, in the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up believing that black people were an inferior form of humanity. This was God’s word – according to the Bible-bashing ruling party, the Nationalists – so it was taught to us as a fact of life, alongside our two-times table and the alphabet. Once you regard certain people as inferior, it’s not a big step also to regard them as dispensable. I think apartheid was on the road to Auschwitz, if not yet at its notorious gate.
Primo was still playing Cape Town on Holocaust Day in January 2005. We gave a special performance, with several concentration camp survivors in the audience, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When it came to the final section, where Primo says the date, today’s date – January 27 – and then describes the Russians liberating the camp, I found it hard to keep going. All round the world people were commemorating this particular moment of history and here I was in my home town, relating Primo Levi’s experience of it.
I had met Tutu several times before – it’s always an honour and a joy. Despite his short stature he has a mighty handshake and a radiant heart that illuminates any conversation. But tonight he was subdued. “I actually don’t know what’s appropriate to say about your show,” he confided in me. “Man’s capacity for evil is just endless.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. Here was the man who had presided over South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and who had been forced to listen to endless horror stories – stories that beggar belief – yet Primo Levi’s testimony still left him shaken.
After many setbacks, HBO and the BBC were eventually able to film Primo last year. Speaking as one who never saw it in the theatre, I am surprised by the film and proud of it. I hope that it might introduce new generations to Primo Levi and inspire them to read the whole of If This Is a Man. Levi’s personal memories of Auschwitz make for knowledge that the rest of us can’t afford to forget.
Primo is on BBC4 at January 27
Primo Time, Antony Sher’s journal about creating Primo, is published by Nick Hern Books
Antony Sher about making his new play ' David'
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Antony Sher in his one-man play of Primo Levi