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Sir Antony Sher speaks to Judi Herman about his relationship with Primo Levi
By Judi Herman

Judi Herman is a freelance writer, broadcaster and producer, working mainly for BBC Radio World Service and the BBC’s main UK speech network, [Radio 4]. She specialises in making radio features on arts and entertainment, religion, education, travel and human-interest stories. Among programmes to which she contributes regularly are the World Service Arts and Entertainment Magazine The Ticket, the World Service Heart and Soul Series and Radio Four’s flagship magazine programme Woman’s Hour. She also writes regular theatre reviews for the influential UK theatre website Whatsonstage.com and is a guest performing arts lecturer at Middlesex University Judi has written several stage shows, including How the West End Was Won, a show celebrating Jewish life in the West End of London, commissioned to accompany the London Jewish Museum's exhibition Living Up West; and Stones of Kolin, a play with music, charting six hundred years of Jewish life in a small Czech town, performed in both London and Kolin in the Czech Republic. She’s also worked in Public Relations, including theatre PR, so she reckons she knows the theatre business from more sides than most! Judi lives near London with Steve, her husband of twenty-eight years. They have a son and a daughter in their early twenties – and a Bedlington Terrier just coming up to Bar Mitzvah age! E-mail : judi_herman@hotmail.com  

Distinguished actor and writer Sir Antony Sher's one-man play 'Primo' based on Primo Levi's 'If This Is A Man', has been playing at the Hampstead Theatre, after transferring from the National Theatre and also playing in his native South Africa. Again there are returns only for this sell-out show and extra performances have been added before the run finishes on 19 March.

Primo Levi
was born in the Northern Italian City of Turin in 1919, where he graduated in chemistry with first class honours in 1941. In 1943 he joined the Italian Resistance, but when his cell was infiltrated, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he arrived in February 1944. He was held in the slave labour camp of Auschwitz III and after months working as a labourer, his skills as a chemist were recognised and used by his captors. He was liberated by the Russians on 27 January 1945 and went on to become an internationally recognised, award-winning writer. ‘Primo’ is based on one of his most famous books, ‘If This Is A Man’, recounting his experiences in Auschwitz. Primo Levi died in 1987, after falling downstairs in his home in Turin. To this day the speculation continues as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. On his gravestone are his name, his dates and his Auschwitz number.

As Sher prepared to launch his book Primo Time’, telling the story behind the show, at London's Jewish Book Week on 13 March, he has been in conversation with Judi Herman. Sher told her how he first thought of adapting Levi’s book for the stage in 1989, when he was playing the title role in the original production of Peter Flannery’s play ‘Singer’, which opens with a scene set in Auschwitz. But this experience gave him grave reservations.

AS: I felt that if one was to adapt Primo for the stage, you couldn’t do it literally by putting Auschwitz on stage as we attempted to do in the first scene of ‘Singer’. I felt uncomfortable with that. Although I think ‘Singer’ is a major modern play, I’m simply saying – I don’t think it’s possible to stage Auschwitz, or indeed film it. No version of it that I’ve seen, not even ‘Schindler’s List’ works for me. So that the only way I thought would work was to take a sort of documentary approach and just do it as Primo Levi giving his testimony of what had happened as he does in the book.

JH: And you were inspired by the film ‘Shoah’.

AS: Yes it’s as though he were one of the people being interviewed in ‘Shoah’ – if you’ve seen it, you’ll know that it never shows actual footage of the camps. The impact of ‘Shoah’, it seems to me, is people in modern dress who look like you and me telling these unbearable stories. And somehow because they look like you and me, the impact is even stronger, I feel than if it’s distanced by images that are less familiar.

JH: You discovered that Levi was a very shy man until he went through this and then he felt that he had to tell his story to anyone who would listen.

AS: That’s right. He underwent an extraordinary transformation – before Auschwitz, he’d been a very shy man. At University in Turin if he had to get up and deliver a paper he found that incredibly difficult to do. But when he returned from Auschwitz he was buttonholing people in the streets or on trains to tell them what had happened to him.

In preparation for Primo we did a workshop at the National Theatre Studio and several survivors came to talk to us. And we also invited James Thompson, a psychiatrist who specialises in trauma. He explained that holocaust survivors divide into two groups – some who would not talk a word about what had happened to them and others whom you couldn’t stop talking. And clearly Primo Levi fell into the latter category.

JH: You said you can’t bring the Holocaust to the stage , but I think the fact that you are telling his story now, I think he would be very pleased, because he wanted it told, he told it himself whenever he could. As we know his life came to an end prematurely and many holocaust survivors are also coming to the end of their lives. Obviously we can watch them on video or in films like ‘Shoah’. But someone like you interpreting it is very important. Do you feel you have a responsibility now?
AS: Yes, especially I feel that because it was incredibly difficult to get the rights from the Primo Levi estate to do this. The estate is his widow and his two grown up children and what I didn’t realise when I made an early draft was that they’d made a blanket decision to never let anybody stage or film this book, ‘If This Is a Man’. I guess that is because they were as worried as indeed I am by what a fictional or dramatised representation of it might be. We ran straight into this decision when we attempted to get the rights. It took a long time to win their trust. Initially they refused but eventually they gave their permission. And once they had, there was an added responsibility that I had to honour the trust that they had put in me that I would do this faithfully – and indeed the adaptation I have done is incredibly faithful to his words.

JH: I like the way you call that distilling it. You obviously have to pick what are for you the key moments. Has any of the family seen the show?

AS: No, but they sent representatives from his publishing house in Turin and Stuart Wolf who did the English translation, who worked personally with Primo on it. I knew from their reaction that night that they were totally comfortable and impressed with what I had done so I felt a huge sense of relief that evening. I knew the reports to the family would be good.

JH: You’ve played the show in London and South Africa. And you actually performed the show in South Africa on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. That must have been extraordinary.

AS: Astonishing. It was the coming together of many important things for me. For the first time, I was playing my home town, Cape Town, so to be there on that anniversary, in this play, with the last section beginning with me saying the date is 27 January and then describing in detail the Russians arriving at the camp – it was an extraordinary coming together of art and life. The audience was so charged that night – and sitting among them was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who came round to talk to me afterwards. And also several holocaust survivors. It was a phenomenal night. It wasn’t theatre, it was something way beyond that, a night I’ll never forget.

JH: And you had seen the parallels with Mandela and Levi and the racist laws.

AS: One of my early lines in the play is ‘a life of segregation forced on me by the racial laws’. Now did he write that, or did Desmond Tutu or Nelson Mandela write it? There is a similarity but one has to be very careful of making glib comparisons. I talked to Desmond Tutu that night about how one has to be careful about comparing the holocaust to apartheid – apartheid was on the road to Auschwitz, but they weren’t there yet.

JH: What made you feel you wanted to write a book about the experience of making ‘Primo’?

AS: As I said earlier, it’s something beyond theatre. So it’s been a remarkable experience in my life, not just in my career. And it’s quite a story, the story of visiting Auschwitz with the director, Richard Wilson, to research; and then visiting Turin, the place where Levi lived and died. It covers a period of about two years and it was quite a journey. So because I’ve written a couple of these kind of journal books before (‘The Year of the King’ about playing Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ and ‘Woza Shakepeare’, written with his partner, Gregory Doran, about playing Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ in South Africa), I knew this really deserved a book of its own.

JH: In the book, we get an insight into the working process. As a Jewish actor, you put yourself through some difficult experiences in workshops. None of us who did not live through it can really imagine what it was like in Auschwitz and even in workshops you couldn’t, but you felt that was very important to try and get any sort of handle on it.

AS: I’m Jewish, but I’m secular Jewish and it’s very important to know that Primo Levi was as well, that’s quite an important fact in his story. But you’re quite right, whether one is practising or non-practising, if you were Jewish in Europe at that time, you’d be going to Auschwitz, so it’s a technical point. The idea of the workshops is entirely to do with Richard Wilson, the director. He was totally inspirational, not only the way that he conceived that whole workshop, which I wouldn’t have thought about, but also the way that he staged the whole thing is beyond anything I had dreamed of or wrote in the script.

JH: The workshop involved you not being able to speak the language, while other actors were playing your interrogators.

AS: Yes, we did some exercises and they were absolutely symbolic and it’s very important to stress this point because nobody should think that we were attempting – or could attempt – to reproduce genuine Auschwitz experiences. But we did do some symbolic exercises. One of the worst experiences when you arrived in the camp was that people were shouting at you and giving orders in a language that you didn’t understand. So we did some exercises to simulate that. And it’s a truly disturbing experience to have people shouting at you in another language. And in the workshop, if you got it wrong, they were shouting at you, obviously, but nothing actually happened to you. In Auschwitz, you could be wounded or killed if you got it wrong. It was a terrifying initiation exercise when you arrived in Auschwitz.

JH: Survivors have presumably come up to you and told you what they thought about the play.

AS: Most moving of all was the survivor we interviewed as a group in the workshop, a lady called Trude Levi, no relation to him, from Hungary. It was incredibly moving the day this eighty-year old lady came to talk to us. She became in a way the model for how to do it, because she has an extraordinary composure, despite the horror story that she told. And when she came to the show, her reaction afterwards was one of the things I’ll never forget – how affected she was by seeing the show.

JH: Would you have done it if you weren’t Jewish? Do you think you would have connected with it and done this play?

AS: Well, yes, because I’m gay as well and gay people were in Auschwitz. When I went there, the shocking thing was remembering that I would have been there on two counts. And I found a badge in the museum there that was specially constructed for my kind - a Star of David made out of two triangles, one pink, one yellow … So I don’t think you need to be Jewish to feel passionately about this subject.

The Hampstead Theatre has a website at www.hampsteadtheatre.com .

‘Primo Time’ is published by Nick Hern Books priced £9.99. (ISBN: 1 85459 852 X). They have a website at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk  

Related Links:

  • Resources
  • Primo traces a spare tale of atrocity
  • Read additional reviews by Judi Herman
  • Read additional reviews on Holocaust Theatre
  • Read additional "From Page to Stage "

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  • Judi Herman

    Antony Sher and Richard Wilson

    Antony Sher's one-man play 'Primo' based on Primo Levi's 'If this is a man'

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