Thursday, April 17, 2008

Primo: Tonight or Next Week

Fatigue for the recent proliferation of one-person shows would be understandable, but exception should be made for Great Performances’ broadcast of Sir Anthony Sher’s Primo, debuting tonight on New York’s WNET 13 and next Thursday, the 24th, for most of the rest of the country. Masterfully adapting and performing Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (If This Is a Man), Sher uses the format of solo performance to capture the fundamental contradiction of life in the death camps—despite cramped spaces, constant new arrivals, and the ever-present terror of SS guards, prisoners like Levi were in fact, alone in a very existential way.

Levi was captured with a group of Italian anti-fascist partisans in 1943. He assumed it would be better to identify himself as an Italian of Jewish descent, rather than as a member of the political resistance. As a result he was deported to Auschwitz in early 1944, spending eleven months in Hell before the camp’s eventual liberation.

Levi was a chemist, and numbers would be grimly significant in his story. He would be one of twenty two Jewish Italians out of 650 in his transport to survive the death camp. His very identity would be reduced to a mere digit: 174517. Sher’s Levi explains: “While the habits of freedom still made me look for the time on my wristwatch, my new name appeared instead: one hundred and seventy-four thousand, five hundred and seventeen.”

Primo is particularly effective when explaining the every-day horrors of life in Auschwitz. In a particularly gripping sequence, Sher’s Levi explains:

“Death begins with your shoes—your wooden soled shoes. At first they’re like instruments of torture. After a few hours marching you already have painful sores. These quickly become infected and then you are forced to walk with a kind of shuffle as if dragging a convict’s chain . . . In the lager [camp], the average life expectancy of a high number is about eight weeks. If you last longer, it is because you‘ve mastered two things. One, you’ve learned to obey orders in a language that you don’t understand. Two, you have a pair of shoes that fit.”

Levi attributes his survival against the odds to several factors. Most notably is his cooperative friendship with another prisoner, Alberto. In powerful scene, Sher’s Levi decries that prisoners are “ferociously alone,” but they “will conduct an experiment, a chemical experiment in a way. Is there not more strength in two?”

Also significantly contributing to his survival was an Italian civilian laborer, Lorenzo Perrone, who smuggled soup to Levi, and Alberto by extension. Levi the chemist is able to calculate precisely how the calories of Perrone’s soup are able to make up for the deficit of the camp’s inadequate rations. That chemistry training would ultimately lead to Levi’s assignment to a laboratory, likely saving him from the perilous conditions of winter labor.

Sher portrays Levi with restrained dignity. He is dressed in the shirt, tie, and sweater vest of a celebrated author and public intellectual, not in camp uniform—this is a memory play, not a docudrama. Primo is a deeply humanistic work that celebrates the spirit of people like Alberto and Perrone. Yet in a few devastating scenes, Sher’s Levi literally passes judgment on the causal inhumanity of his captors.

Finely nuanced, Sher’s performance is remarkable. With little more than a chair for a prop, he commands the stage and screen. He is aided by effective lighting and the haunting incidental cello music of Robin Thomson-Clarke. Recorded at London’s Hampstead Theatre the production enjoyed a critically acclaimed limited run on Broadway. It premieres on Channel Thirteen in the New York market tonight at 8:00 and on most PBS stations next Thursday (making the timing of this review difficult). It is a powerful production, strongly recommended.