Review – Drowned or Saved by Geoffrey Williams:
Drowned or Saved?, a new play written and directed by Geoffrey Williams, was the most harrowing 75 minutes I have spent in the theatre in many years. A play of visceral and psychic pain, it depicts Primo Levi’s attempt to complete a new story while he struggles to contain the ghosts of Auschwitz and the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, memories that haunt him constantly as he grapples with his emotional responses to his experiences.
So much has been written about the Holocaust – none so evocatively as Primo Levi. Experiences he relates in his memoir, If This Is A Man, are woven into the script. In this book, Levi, a Jewish chemist from Turin, tells of how he came to be in Auschwitz having been captured as part of the Italian resistance and then recounts his struggle to survive the death camp and his eventual return to Italy after the camp was liberated.
Levi’s own stories form some of the strongest parts of the script. Less effective is the attempt to balance the emotional tone by introducing lighter interactions. The scene when Levi visits the rabbi to offer a donation towards a Passover Seder he will not be attending was, to my mind, one of the weaker points in the play. More effective was the humorous use of the intrusive housekeeper, Signora Giordanino (Paula Cassina) who cannot believe her good fortune in working for Professore Levi and insists on opening the curtains and plying him with espresso and unwanted breakfast all the while imploring him to visit his ill mother who lies waiting two doors down the passage.
Williams writes about the power of engaging with one person’s story – rather than the 6 million who were murdered as this tends to overwhelm our minds. The use of a non-speaking prisoner to represent the millions of others is a very powerful device. Null Achtzehn (Eve Niker), known only by the last three digits of the number tattooed on his arm (018), was in Auschwitz with Levi. The performance was almost unbearable to watch as the character juddered across the stage, gasping and wheezing, frozen, beaten and starved, making heartrending sounds of pain and eventually crawling under Levi’s desk. This is an almost dead person who haunts Levi’s waking and nightmares, a representation of what Levi most fears – the non-survivor who has already given up on life, a danger to those still struggling to survive.
In this deeply psychological play, Elijah (Alex Marchi) – either an hallucination or a part of Levi’s psyche – is a character who both challenges and comforts Levi as he grapples with what it means to be alive, what responsibilities he has to the dead and to the living, how can he find the vitality he no longer sees in himself but which others project onto him as a survivor.
At the end of the play, Levi finally follows Elijah’s guidance to comfort the ghost that haunts him, to confront with compassion the fragile, broken part of himself represented in this character. In psychological terms, this integration of the wounded aspect of the self is part of the process of psychic healing. We know that this did not save Primo Levi from suicide but perhaps the playwright is making a broader point about the need for compassion.
All four actors are excellent and put in very powerful performances, Cassina and Marchi taking on a variety of roles. Special mention must go to Marco Gambino who plays Levi. He moves with grace from one mood state to another: tortured, stricken, amused, loving. His humming of an aria from Tosca in the cattle truck to Auschwitz as he tries to comfort Vanda, a woman Levi loved, was one of the most poignant, tender and understated moments in an otherwise lacerating play. Too much of the rest of the play was brutalising, the relentless horror made me recoil and want to crawl under my seat. When the theatre was plunged into darkness and the audience instructed to imagine ourselves in a crowded cattle truck, our families soon to be gassed, our mothers already dead and stinking by our sides – I felt this a theatrical device too far, an immersive experience that might well induce panic. This might be more than the audience needs in order to empathise with the nightmare that Levi lived every day.
Holocaust education has always been a vital way to keep not only the memories of the genocide alive but also to attempt to prevent its recurrence. Williams talks of the urgency of this task in the programme notes; the survivors are nearing the end of their lives and their stories need to be recorded. Levi left us with his powerful stories which are both painful and necessary reading. Anti- Semitism is on the rise once again in Europe and the recent murder of Jews in Pittsburgh is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks that anti-Semitism is history. Populist leaders of our time fan the flames of hatred and xenophobia; when in the play, the character Hoess (the Auschwitz commandant) says the Jews died because ‘they are not German’ it is impossible not to think of the experiences of being ‘othered’ that minorities and migrants continue to face today.
As a portrayal of the tortured and creative mind of Primo Levi, this play works well. He is obsessed with the horrors he has experienced and the responsibility he feels to tell his stories, unable to sleep or eat or endure sunlight. It is not difficult to understand how he came some years later to take his life shortly after completing his final book of essays on life in the Nazi concentration camps, The Drowned and the Saved. Williams turns this title into a question. Was Levi drowned or saved?
Drowned or Saved?
Tristan Bates Theatre,
1A Tower Street,
London, WC2H 9NP
6 – 24 November 2018
All photographs were taken by Ewa Ferdynus
Also recommended and showing in London – The RSC production of Macbeth at the Barbican Arts Centre