Drowned or Saved?
Tristan Bates Theatre
Reviewed – 8th November 2018
“a moving and powerful theatrical experience”
Primo Levi, who died in 1987, was an Italian-Jewish Holocaust survivor and the author of a number of respected works including an account of the year he spent as a prisoner at Auschwitz concentration camp. Drowned or Saved? is a new play written and directed by Geoffrey Williams that not only pays homage to Levi’s message of humanity, compassion and perseverance but also forces the audience to never forget the systematic murder of six million Jews. Whilst it is difficult to conceptualise that number of people, it is easier to understand one person’s story and in essence, this is what the play focuses on.
The audience is greeted by Levi in his sparsely furnished study. There are some books and a Menorah, a symbol of Judaism since ancient times. He is restless and unable to sleep. He struggles to get closer to a character in a story he cannot complete, so he delves into his haunting memories of Auschwitz and recalls characters he met.
Marco Gambino is perfectly cast as Primo Levi. He commands the stage and wonderfully conveys the tormented soul Primo has become. Equally talented, Paula Cassina plays his loving wife Lucia and also their housekeeper Mrs Giordanino as well as Vanda, a close friend of Primo’s who died alongside him on the train to Auschwitz. Alex Marchi takes on six very different character roles and is able to successfully switch between them, often in the same scene. The final cast member is Eve Niker who has the difficult task of conveying, with no words, the disintegration of an inmate in those terrible conditions. Primo knows her only as Null Achtzehn (translated to 018) due to him recognising part of her camp serial number.
Designer Baśka Wesołowska has created a simple but effective set with wooden slatted walls which adapt with the play’s timeline, from a study to a train wagon and finally to the camp. Rachael Murray’s sound design flows well and the lighting (Matt Leventhall) helps create a smooth transition backwards and forwards in time.
Amongst the outstanding storytelling, there are some moments that don’t quite work. Those not able to understand German and Italian, as well as Jewish tradition, may at times feel slightly isolated from the content. Equally the ending, whilst incredibly emotional, left the story slightly unfinished and I felt more could have been told about Levi. However, the writing and direction from Geoffrey Williams is commendable. Whilst the piece will appeal to a wider audience, it is certainly unmissable for those with an interest in the Holocaust, history or indeed with a Jewish background.
Drowned or Saved? clearly it isn’t a light hearted piece. It is however a moving and powerful theatrical experience covering a horrific, yet important, part of modern history that should never be forgotten.
Reviewed by Steve Sparrow
Photography by Ewa Ferdynus
Drowned or Saved?
Tristan Bates Theatre until 24th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: