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.
“emotionally heavy subject matter often relieved by astutely funny, bittersweet observations on female relationships”
The Silence takes us through the private musings and personal interactions of Ewa, Anna and Maria – three generations of Polish women. It’s hard to pin where the focus of the play sits, running over issues of national identity, the traumas of war and the infuriation of family. That sounds a bit hefty and dramatic, doesn’t it? Well, The Silence is both of these things but also light hearted at times with emotionally heavy subject matter often relieved by astutely funny, bittersweet observations on female relationships.
Kate Spiro gives a just-fraught-enough performance of the externally beige but internally chaotic Ewa, the mother and daughter at the centrepoint of The Silence in many ways. It isn’t an easy part to fulfil sympathetically and could quite easily come across as a standard middle aged meltdown figure. This is avoided with a real sense of tension, a visible tightness that makes one constantly on edge to see if she will begin to unwind or explode in a spectacular snap.
Tina Gray handles ‘babcia’ Maria quite sweetly, setting the audience up to accept the shambling, sweet-old-girl routine well enough to make the turn of the second act all the more hard hitting. Maria Louis completes the cast as Anna and absolutely nails the irritable but dutiful late-teen phase of the youngest generation of the family. All three dip into a not insignificant amount of spoken Polish which comes across quite naturally, a good job from dialect coach Karina Knapinska.
There is something of a stereotypical feel to the characters to begin with – bumbling grandma, middle aged mess and rebellious youth but these roles round out as the play progresses, Nicola Werenowksa has crafted the story of The Silence quite skilfully to take an extraordinary life history and make it relatable to a modern British audience. We go from tales of the Gulag to groans about the M25 seamlessly, seeing parallels in stresses and relationships since the WWII era without falling into the trap of belittling current woes by comparison to harder times.
The Silence is playing in the Studio at the Mercury Theatre, to which it is well suited. Three simple grey chairs make for the majority of the set with only a few other basic props. A high grey screen to the rear of the stage adds a looming bleakness to the atmosphere, cleverly used with a backlight later in the play to fill in time lost to a costume change. This is a play about conversations – conversations with ourselves and with others and the minimalist backdrop avoids any distraction from what is being said. It cannot be described as fast moving, though it flows very well despite the frequently overlapping dialogue of each character. This is helpful to the pace but does make it challenging to keep up with at times, more than once I found myself focusing on one and losing the thread of where the stories of the other two had gone. It is definitely a captivating play and although it is enjoyable at times one doesn’t exactly leave the theatre with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Touches of humour keep it from being completely depressing, however.
As a final note, it is refreshing to see an all female cast and creatives team telling an important story in a time when immigration, refugees and conflict commemorations are such hot topics of debate, so congratulations to director Jo Newman on the production as a whole.