Primo

  • Date:
    July 1, 2005
    Review by:
    Polly Wittenberg

    Review by Polly Wittenberg

    Written by: Adapted by Antony Sher from the memoir 'Survival in Auschwitz' by Primo Levi.
    Directed by: Richard Wilson.
    Cast: Antony Sher (Primo Levi).
    Synopsis: Primo Levi survived Auschwitz to bear witness to a story of almost inconceivable brutality. But against the odds, what ultimately emerges in his writing is a sense of humanity, of man's worth.


    Polly Wittenberg's Review.

    I�ve been away. By now, you have probably read the reviews or seen the ads touting Primo, Antony Sher�s magnificent one-man riff on Primo Levi�s memoir of life in Auschwitz. The reviews contain superlatives like �grandeur on stage� and I couldn�t agree more. It is a quiet, powerful evening of theater running only until August�7 (now playing to the 14 Aug) and is definitely not to be missed.

    I can�t be the first on the block to tell you what a great performance Sher is giving and how great an actor he is (the best, in my opinion), but I can at least let you know how uncharacteristic his calm, dignified, appropriate approach to Primo is when compared to the bravura nature of many of his previous characterizations. Again showing just how great an actor he is.

    I have been following Sher�s career closely since I first saw him spring upon the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1985 as the hunchbacked Richard III. That fabled performance (which found Sher zipping around in a black costume on black-painted crutches) has been described as generating the energy of a �bottled spider�. He reminded me of a cockroach which was totally in keeping with the nature of Shakespeare�s evil character. It was also theatrical magic, never to be forgotten.

    Since then I�ve seen Sher as a whirling-dervish of a Malvolio in Twelfth Night, a hyper-Orthodox Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, a more-like-Harvey Fierstein than-Harvey Fierstein Arnold Beckoff in Torch Song Trilogy, a gorilla-like brute in the title role of Tamburlaine, a high-stepping Henry Carr in Travesties, a bloody unrepentant usurper in Macbeth, and a vicious slumlord in Singer. The last Sher performance I saw, in 2004 at Stratford. was truly over-the-top--a puffed-up eye-rolling Iago in Othello. He�s also twice played Hitler-like characters: on stage in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and on screen in a truly terrible movie named Genghis Cohn.

    There have been more restrained performances on stage too as, for example, the doctor in Uncle Vanya, the frustrated title character in Cyrano de Bergerac, and the eccentric artist in Stanley. On screen he was British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in Mrs. Brown and Dr. Moth in Shakespeare in Love. He was a dignified barrister (opposing Derek Jacobi) in the TV miniseries The Jury.

    My point in reciting these credits is that almost all Sher�s performances have been great and�except for Stanley and the paltry list of movie and TV appearances�none have been seen in New York. Our loss.

    In recent years, some Sher performances have been preserved on video. His Macbeth and his touching portrayal of Leontes in The Winter�s Tale can be purchased on VHS or DVD from the Royal Shakespeare Company�s website: www.rsc.org.uk. Primo will be available on DVD from Amazon at the end of July. (A friend got me the Primo DVD in London and I�ve viewed it--a great reminder of a great evening, but not as good as the real thing on stage.)

    In addition to his acting skills, Sher has written several wonderful books about how he develops his performances: Year of the King (about Richard III), Woza Shakespeare (about a production of Titus Andronicus in his native South Africa), and Primo Live (which I�m looking forward to reading). On the cover of the current edition of Year of the King (also available from the RSC website), there is a delightful drawing of the evil king as arachnid or insect�take your pick. It�s by Sher himself, who is a gifted artist in every sense of the word. Inside the book are other Sher illustrations. My favorite is Sher depicting himself as a tiny Richard III cowering before the overwhelming image of Laurence Olivier in the same role.

    Given his brilliant career, Sir Antony has no need to cower anymore.

    Polly Wittenberg



    What the critics had to say.....

    BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says �Grandeur may seem a strange word to describe the modesty, selflessness and accumulation of small, exact gestures that are the keynotes of Sir Antony's interpretation. But from the beginning to the end of "Primo," grandeur is what fills the stage.�
    HOWARD KISSEL of NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says "Powerful portrait of a soul in a very modern hell."
    CLIVE BARNES of NEW YORK POST says "In every way � as a human document, as a theatrical statement, as a piece of indelibly powerful acting � Sir Antony Sher makes "Primo" an extraordinary experience."
    LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "Sher's respect for Levi's straightforward and meticulously-detailed observations is both admirable and awesome."
    JACQUES LE SOURD of JOURNAL NEWS says "Despite his laudable efforts, there is no escaping that Sher is a polished actor, with a deliciously elegant British accent. We can't really forget this, and it gives this particular tour of hell a certain polite � and at times fatal � remove from the hugeness of the horrors Sher so calmly narrates."
    MICHAEL KUCHWARA of the ASSOCIATED PRESS says "The story is told with quiet simplicity � straightforward and direct � which makes the intimate, matter-of-fact monolog called "Primo," all the more horrifying and theatrical. "

    External links to full reviews from newspapers:
    New York Times
    New York Daily News
    New York Post
    Newsday
    Journal News
    Associated Press