When Auschwitz is mentioned within the first few minutes of a show, it’s an indication that this may be inappropriate or something in extremely bad taste, or otherwise gloomy. At the time of writing, there’s another show in London called A Very Very Very Dark Matter: perhaps such a title might have been as appropriate as Drowned or Saved? Here, Primo Levi (Marco Gambino) has it repeatedly pointed out to him by his trusted assistant, Mrs Giordanino (Paula Cassina) that his study is too dark, a most inconspicuous metaphor for his thought processes, or at least the ones portrayed in the play.
Levi is an intense figure, a tortured soul whose mind is dominated by his experiences and more particularly, the memory of a fellow inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp, where Levi was taken in 1944. He does not even recall the other person’s full prisoner number, only that it ends in 018 – or, in German, as the character’s name is listed in the show’s programme, Null Achtzehn (Eve Niker). The show is not in chronological order, and I wonder if it would have been more beneficial to have more of the events of the Second World War dramatized before turning to the implications of what happened and Levi’s retrospective commentary.
There are moments when Gambino’s Levi becomes very emotional. I hesitate to label the character as melodramatic – this is, after all, a real-life character and a Holocaust survivor: the horrors such a person would have witnessed are simply going to provoke strong reactions, especially when they play on his mind as vividly and regularly as they do in this case. Levi summons the prophet Elijah (Alex Marchi), with a view to obtaining some guidance. At first glance, it comes across as indicative of a delusional state, and while that never quite goes away, partly because (this version of) Elijah is bemused at best and dismissive at worst, it begins to come across as a cry for help, or perhaps a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder some years before that term entered common usage.
The play does not focus too heavily on Jewish observances – one gets the feeling that Levi busies himself in his study whether it is the Sabbath or not. At a time when a number of productions about war and remembrance are being performed in this centenary year of Armistice Day, it is apt that the show concentrates on Levi’s World War Two experiences. But more details about his life both before and after the Nazis had so rudely interrupted his career as a scientist wouldn’t have gone amiss, and while he continued to write memoirs about the war for decades after the events occurred, his literary output was broader than the injustices of the Third Reich.
There are glimpses of his observations in this play, but they are rather overshadowed by the depiction of the harrowing injustices served on Auschwitz inmates by the concentration camp authorities. What I could glean from the production (and not from any background reading) was that Levi strove to conserve energy whilst in the camp in order to survive – a strategy that ‘Null Achtzehn’ hadn’t followed and consequently paid the price. The sound effects were sparing but effective, and this steadily-paced production is an intriguing and insightful introduction to the life of an Italian intellectual.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Written and directed by RADA alumni and former Associate Director at the York Theatre, Geoffrey Williams, Drowned or Saved? depicts Levi as he reflects on having written some of the most significant documents the world has ever seen. The works which detail the horror of his survival are of substantial historical interest because of the composed neutrality of their author. The superhuman effort to maintain such a calm penmanship in spite of such inhumane horrors is brought to the stage through a cross-world journey that pulls from the memories which haunt Levi and unavoidably bring the characters from his past to life.
Marco Gambino (Playing: Primo Levi)
Paula Cassina (Playing: Lucia / Mrs Giordanino / Vanda)
Alex Marchi (Playing: Elijah / Rabbi / Paweł / Höes / Alex / Man on train)
Eve Niker (Playing: Null Achtzehn)
Writer & Director Geoffrey Williams
Drowned or Saved?
By Geoffrey Williams
Tristan Bates Theatre, 1A Tower St, Covent Garden WC2H 9NP