Friday, November 19, 2004

Primo, National Theatre

The set is stark. A plain, cold set with a doorway at the back which frames another smaller doorway behind which is a light. The bare, square, grey look is like that of a prison but has an unworldly, unnerving effect. There is a sense of the cleanliness of German architecture, the lines of Bauhaus and the austerity of Zen. On stage there is a sole plain wooden chair, which somehow implies a Buddhist flower blossom. It is a very beautiful set, and sets the tone precisely.

The lights darken and suddenly come up and Sher is there, framed in the doorway. He quickly takes to the stage and, dressed in a plain suit with glasses and speaking in a unaffected tone, he effectively embodies the scientific, the matter-of-factness of Primo Levi. Yet, there is a certain staginess. Although Sher is Levi telling the story, somehow he remains Sher. The character doesn’t quite absorb him. This is because they have kept a certain distance from the audience. He tells the story but there is little sense that he is telling us personally, in the way of a storyteller. In some way, he doesn’t engage the audience. He remains stiff and calm and the unrelenting nature of the monologue challenges you alone to make the engagement. You feel uncomfortable and don’t forget yourself in the performance, but it is impossible to resent it while he is telling you a story of genuine suffering.

(And what suffering. That, he gets across. When we hear about so much suffering in the world, does Levi’s story not represent the apex? Although others suffer as much, surely no-one has suffered more.)

Presumably the disconnected effect is entirely deliberate, but it is hard to tell. In any case watching Sher there is a sense of watching acting royalty. You settle purely to observe how he chooses to do it, rather than judging critically. Even if one might do it differently, it remains completely acceptable. In acting terms, Sher displays his mastery. Relating the entire story in the Levi’s unadorned manner, he allows himself only one moment of ‘ordinary’ acting, one glimmer of emotion as he tells the story of the man who prayed with thanks for avoiding the selection. The emotions are anger, disgust, sadness and Sher conveys them all with only a hint, barely a touch upon the wheel before immediately returning to the prevailing restraint. You feel he could have brought a hurricane with a switch in the tone of his voice.