Sir Antony Sher in Primo

(Photo © Ivan Kyncl)
Sir Antony Sher in Primo
(Photo © Ivan Kyncl)
In Primo, Sir Antony Sher's adaptation of Primo Levi's memoir If This Is a Man, the South African-born actor does some astounding one-man-play work. The piece deals with two fathomlessly compelling issues. First, it concerns the Jewish chemist's appalling, year-long incarceration at Auschwitz. ("Hell must be like this," Levi recalls thinking.) Only slightly less apparently, Primo is also about how to present aspects of the Holocaust in a theatrical entry. (Levi himself didn't like the word "Holocaust" as a description of this major 20th-century event, but it's the most familiar one we have and is therefore employed here.)

In the script's introduction, Sher writes, "I don't believe it's possible to put Auschwitz on stage or film in any conventional sense...I think if this play is staged with the utmost simplicity and minimalism -- a man alone in a light, just telling us his story, a story of almost inconceivable savagery and survival -- it might be possible to make a powerful piece of theater." Director Richard Wilson has followed this instinct to the letter; so has set and costume designer Hildegard Bechtler, who dresses Sher in a professorial vest, shirt, tie, and trousers and backs him up with plain gray walls that subliminally and symbolically suggest an unforgiving maze. However, Paul Pyant -- the original lighting designer of the production at London's National Theatre, where it premiered -- and David Howe, who has presumably recreated that design, deviate from Sher's idea. It's not a single light in which Sher stands alone but one that begins shifting immediately after Levi enters, framed in a doorway. The idea is to emphasize the changing locales in which the interned Italian Jew finds himself, as well as to indicate how Levi's states of mind change accordingly. Pyant's delicate work and Howe's treatment of it is very much about shedding light on a daunting subject.

Sher, an actor who approaches no role casually, has considered taking this one on since 1989, when he first read Levi's account of his annus horribilis. In performance, Sher is a piston in thinking-man's clothing, building on his general approach with myriad specifics. He speaks Levi's words in a modulated but resonant baritone while alternating movement with the occasional devastating stillness. Describing everything from the Poland-bound train ride to the shock of his arrival at the grim camp to the ensuing, disorienting interrogations he and his comrades underwent, the actor demonstrates his character's ill-fitting-shoes shuffle. Eventually, he communicates the modest joy Levi experiences when allowed to stretch out in a bunk that he has all to himself.

Acknowledging Claude Lanzmann's documentary Shoah as the strongest influence on this one-man piece, Sher models his speech patterns on actual witness accounts. He talks in a slow and measured tempo. It would be misleading to say that what he allows are emotions recollected in tranquility; Levi, who committed suicide in 1987, seems never to have attained anything like a tranquil disposition. (Woody Allen makes something of Levi's deceptive moods in Crimes and Misdemeanors.)

Sir Antony Sher in Primo

(Photo © Ivan Kyncl)
Sir Antony Sher in Primo
(Photo © Ivan Kyncl)
Recalling his year in the lager, or camp, Sher's Levi is pointedly undramatic, decidedly reserved, calculatedly dispassionate, and noticeably depressed. The actor offers Levi's astonishment at discovering where he is, his incredulity at the inhumanities he encounters, the physical pain he endured as a result of beatings and injuries. But he is never histrionic. Only two or three times --one of them when a close camp friend dies -- does he allow deeper feelings to surface, and then only momentarily in a silence that's palpable. These brief moments are, as Sher intends them, all the more effective for their infrequency.

Sher's carefully controlled impersonation is the latest in an impressive career that has not often been marked by underplaying. Indeed, he has pole-vaulted as high as possible over the top in such assignments as Iago in Othello, Domitian in Philip Massinger's Roman Actor, the flaming Arnold in Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy, and the title role of Richard III. Only as the artist Stanley Spencer in Pam Gems' Stanley, his one previous visit to Broadway, has Sher ever been spotted holding himself back.

While his Levi is a remarkable turn, it's difficult not to think of it as a turn. A spectator may feel that Sher is correct in noting -- as so many have before him -- that to present even some small fragment of the Holocaust on stage is well nigh impossible to pull off. What's on display here is an actor, albeit a superlative actor, doing his utmost to pay homage to one victim of unspeakable horror but not completely overcoming the obstacles that he knew he faced.