First things first: the Holocaust isnít sacrosanct as far as arts criticism is concerned. There is such a thing as bad Holocaust drama, for example. The main point, though, is that this isnít it. Itís scarcely even drama, but more straightforward testimony. Antony Sher has adapted Primo Leviís book If This Is A Man as a solo theatre piece. Itís delivered simply and matter-of-factly, and is quite shattering.
Primo Levi spent less than a year in Auschwitz in 1944-5, but his accounts have done more than any other one personís to make plain its horrors. Not horrors in a big-shock way, but the grind of it, the cold mechanism of its administration, the fact that this was our creation: we, human beings, made this factory that snuffed out humanity, both literally and figuratively. Even the survivorsí souls were crushed.
Thereís no need to polish such a testament, to invent a dramatic setting for it. Sher enters, hands in pockets, and begins Leviís first-person account. He speaks almost casually, but once or twice you can hear the slight catch in the actorís voice as he tries not to let the words overwhelm him. Only at one or two moments does he step outside the simple reportage to comment on thoughts, feelings, attitudes.
Richard Wilson gives minimal direction: a few movements around the board floor bounded by plaster walls, occasional lighting changes or sound cues. At first these seemed intrusive to me. Gradually, though, I realised that these effects arenít there to heighten the emotions, but paradoxically to give us relief from their remorselessness. Jonathan Goldsteinís Shostakovich-like cello score is sombre and pensive.
Levi writes of the shame felt by all witnesses to this abomination, shame that it could ever have existed in our world. After bearing that burden for 40 years, he took his own life in 1987. Sherís adaptation and performance powerfully remind us of the absolute obscenity of this chapter in our history, and in doing so reminds us also that we are human together. Its entire run is sold out. Deservedly.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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