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'Primo' Brings Nazi Camp Experiences to Broadway


Primo Levi, an Italian survivor of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, wrote about his experiences in such a beautiful and human way that his work has inspired people ever since. Now South African actor Sir Anthony Sher has adapted Levi's memoir "If This is a Man" into a solo show. "Primo" opens on Broadway tomorrow. Jeff Lunden spoke with Sher about this deeply personal project.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

Sir Anthony Sher has played Shakespearean characters like Richard III and Iago on stage and historical figures like Adolf Hitler on film, but he says no role has haunted him like Primo Levi.

Sir ANTHONY SHER (Actor): You know what's remarkable about Primo Levi's book is that he takes the reader by the hand and says, `Come, I'm going to guide you around hell,' and then he does. And in a way, it's what I do with the audience as well. So together we go on a very strange and intense journey.

(Soundbite of "Primo")

Sir ANTHONY: (As Primo Levi) It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944.

That's one of those first sentences of certain books that just grabs the reader, but what he carries on, goes on to explain, is that in 1944 the Germans were allowing the slave labor force in the concentration camps to live a bit longer because they were getting short of labor. And so in a curious way, it was good fortune. It enabled him to survive.

(Soundbite of "Primo")

Sir ANTHONY: (As Primo Levi) And suddenly the door opens with a crash and the dark echoes with that curt barking noise of Germans in command. A huge platform appears before us, lit by reflectors. Beyond it, a row of lorries and everything goes silent again.

LUNDEN: "Primo" is performed in a very stripped-down, almost anti-theatrical style by Anthony Sher, who felt it would be foolish to portray Auschwitz in any literal way. So he plays the author in comfortable middle age, in a tie, sweater vest and loafers. The stage is bare with walls suggesting a concrete cell, and the only piece of furniture is a chair which Sher occasionally sits in or talks to as if it were another prisoner or a guard. He says director Richard Wilson had strong ideas about creating a performance style based on meeting with Holocaust survivors and watching films with their testimonies.

Sir ANTHONY: Richard was observing that they had this enormous experience inside them, but that when they talked about it, it was with a curious restraint, and he felt that that was the way of performing the piece.

LUNDEN: Sher says Levi wrote about Auschwitz with an almost clinical precision.

Sir ANTHONY: He was a chemist by profession, so had a kind of scientific, analytical observation thing. So somehow in this monstrous environment, Auschwitz, he observes everything. Even though his own life is in danger constantly, he's somehow fascinated by it. And I think that curiosity helps him survive.

(Soundbite of "Primo")

Sir ANTHONY: (As Primo Levi) Everything is still very silent, silent as an aquarium or certain dreams. We expected something more apocalyptic, but they're behaving so calmly, so reassuringly. They're just like people doing everyday jobs.

He's a humanist. He just has a fascination with human beings and a compassion and an understanding. He sort of understands that even the persecutors, the SS, are not from Mars. They are human beings. And he's constantly fascinated by how they can behave the way they do.

LUNDEN: Levi wrote that he survived the horror of Auschwitz through a series of lucky coincidences: making a friend with another prisoner who shared extra rations, running into a civilian worker from Italy who smuggled soup to him, getting assigned to a laboratory in the dead of the winter, when seven out of 10 prisoners died of exposure. He was even lucky enough to get shoes that fit properly--something that sounds tiny but, Sher says, had enormous consequences.

Sir ANTHONY: If they don't fit, a series of terrible things start happening of--and they're wooden-soled shoes. You know, they start to become painful, sores develop, you can't keep up with everyone else, you start arriving last everywhere, you get beaten for that, you can't run away when they chase you. And a series of incidents from something as a banal as a pair of shoes can end up costing your life.

LUNDEN: Over the course of an hour and a half, Sher enacts many terrifying episodes. But perhaps the most harrowing is Levi's description of the selection. All the prisoners are stripped naked and forced to run past an SS officer who decides who will live and who will die. Levi famously wrote that `There was Auschwitz. Therefore, God cannot exist.' And this episode is one of the few moments in "Primo" where Sher deals with the writer's religious questioning.

(Soundbite of "Primo")

Sir ANTHONY: (As Primo Levi) Kuden(ph) is thanking God because he's not been chosen. Is he out of his senses? Does he not see Beppo the Greek next to him? Beppo, who's 20 years old, and is going to the gas chamber tomorrow and knows it, and lies there staring up at the light, not saying anything, not even thinking anymore. Does Kuden not realize that next time it will be his turn? Does he not understand that what happened here today is an abomination, which no prayer, no pardon, no apology, nothing in the power of man can ever wipe clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuden's prayer.

(Soundbite of violin)

LUNDEN: In the winter of 1945, Levi contracted scarlet fever and ended up in the camp's infirmary. With the Russians approaching, Auschwitz was evacuated. Only the people in the infirmary were left.

Sir ANTHONY: Again, it's that curious reversal of fortune. Everyone--they all think the people going on the march are the lucky ones and left in the camp you're going to die, and it turns the other way 'round. The march turns--what's called at first the evacuation march becomes known as the death march because almost everyone on it perishes. And surprisingly, the few left in the infirmary survive.

LUNDEN: Primo Levi returned to Turin, Italy, and pursued the twin careers of chemist and author. He suffered his depression his whole life and, 42 years after Auschwitz, committed suicide. It's something Anthony sure has had to grapple with as an actor, but he says he sees this play as a story of survival, not destruction.

Sir ANTHONY: I don't, in a way, see it as one of the experiences in my career so much as one of the experiences in my life. I thought I knew about the Holocaust, I thought I knew about Auschwitz, but I didn't know anything, really. And this has brought me very close to those subjects and to this utterly remarkable man and beautiful writer.

LUNDEN: "Primo" is currently at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway for a limited run through August 7th. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.