on 23 October 2008
Antony Sher's one-man adaptation of Primo Levi's "If This Is A Man" is a truly extraordinary piece of work. Sher has done a wonderful job of condensing the book down in ninety minutes of stage time, and his performance as Levi is gripping and passionate even though Sher practically never even raises his voice. They made the very sensible decision to present the whole thing not as something happening to Levi in the present moment, but as Levi telling us about it later - so Sher walks about the stage in woolly vest, shirtsleeves and trousers, dressed like a modern-day lecturer. There's no shaved head or striped pyjamas, no attempt by this (by his own admission) well-fed, free man to look like a camp prisoner.
It's hard to convey the intensity of the show in print. Most filmed theatrical performances don't work very well. This one does, because of the low-key urgency with which Sher delivers the testimony. Richard Wilson, the show's director, told Sher "It's not a performance, it's a testimony" and one of the most remarkable things about the piece is that Levi's own passion for telling the truth and reporting what Auschwitz was like seems almost to merge into Sher's own passion for doing justice to Levi's experience and his exceptionally precise manner of reporting it. There is very little "acting" going on. As a gay Jewish man, Sher would have been doubly condemned by the Nazis. When Levi talks about the shame felt by just men at the fact that Auschwitz even existed, he is talking about himself and the rest of us.
Sher conveys the suffering and physical torment in the most subtle ways. He takes off his glasses early on, to signify the way the prisoners had their possessions confiscated. To signify nudity, he covers his chest with one hand and his groin with the other. When he first walks on, he almost strolls, but this later becomes a slightly stooped half-shuffle. It's the minimalism that works. The piece happens in your imagination. There are even a couple of moments of dark comedy, wisely underplayed.
It's a great piece of theatre, and one of the very few times that a great book has been successfully adapted for the stage. I can well understand why Sher didn't want to do a long run of this show. By the end, even watching it on my TV, I was profoundly moved. They were absolutely right to film it for posterity.
Sher also wrote an interesting book about the process of working on the piece, "Primo Time".
on 28 June 2016
I was not sure if I should watch something on such a sensitive issue, that it might leave the footprints of heavy sadness. Instead the
entire performance was a masterful presentation, and remains a lasting gift of relaying the account in a way that keeps the audience
watching, and able to admire the endurance of the human spirit. It was beautiful acting in which the human misery was not over
laboured, and yet there was a suggestion that much had happened but could never be articulated. I cannot think there are many people
who could adapt and present this type of work to such a high standard.
If this is his POW, what will his King Lear be like? I can hardly wait.
on 12 May 2009
Antony Sher is a genius- and this play proves it. The play, based on Primo Levi's memoirs of Auschwitz, was written by Sher, who then performed all 90 minutes of it himself.
It is a harrowing vision of the holocaust from the humanistic view point of Levi, and which ever way you look at it is a great play, although I can't imagine too many actors capable of tackling it!
Sher's performance is immense- a masterclass in acting. It's easy to run out of superlatives when commenting on it, but I for one regard it as one of the greatest acting performances I have ever seen.
The direction by Richard Wilson (yes- that Richard Wilson!) is deft and gentle and brings the whole piece to life, and the set and music are brilliantly effective in conjouring the horrors of the Laager.
The whole play is mesmerising, and works just as well on DVD as it did on stage.
The DVD has also got an extremely worthwhile extra in interviews with both Sher and Wilson, which really illustrate the journey both took to get to the final performance.
I cannot praise this DVD enough. It is essential viewing if you have any interest in acting.
on 18 February 2009
I was reluctant to watch this, having read the book and vividly remembering all the horrible details. When I finally took the time to watch it, it took me some time to get used to the fact that this adaptation feels more like a play (which it initially was) than a film. But this quickly became the strongpoint of this film for me. With the simplest of means the grey, hopeless feel of a death camp is created; grey walls, doorways, a wooden chair, a table, light and sound. Antony Sher moves solemnly through these sets and through the magic of his acting makes Auschwitz come alive (so to speak, I'm aware that this is a strange phrase in this context). You can almost feel the cold, the despair, the death, the hunger. This certainly does not make for easy viewing, least of all because Mr. Sher is often looking directly at you while delivering this horrible tale. The strong resemblance he bears to Primo Levi is also rather unsettling. A strong performance I won't forget any time soon.
My verdict: a powerful adaptation of a book that conveys a powerful message: never again.
on 14 January 2008
I had always planned to see this play when it was first produced at the NT but never got round to it, so I was very excited to see this available on DVD. It is a recording of Antony Sher's stunning one man performance at the Hampstead Theatre. Based on Primo Levi's book, "If This Is a Man", the show chronicles his detention at Auschwitz and is an utterly spellbinding watch. With only one character, it makes a successful transition to the screen (which can't be said for many productions).
Also included is a fascinating half-hour programme with Antony Sher and Richard Wilson guiding us through the process of bringing Primo to the stage.
If you love theatre, you owe it to yourself to see this great production.