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.
“There is an outstanding performance from Hazel Maycock, whose portrayal of Betty is worth the price of admission alone”
Dementia is one of the biggest health and social challenges we currently face. Most people know someone affected by this cruel illness and whilst in general mental health is something increasingly spoken about, dementia still has an element of public stigma about it. It is encouraging to see more theatres presenting plays with dementia at the core of the story and one such production from Kali Theatre certainly forces the audience to think deeply about their attitude to the topic.
Sundowning is an eighty minute play by Nessah Muthy which introduces us to Betty, a dementia sufferer, her daughter Teresa and the troubled Alyssa. The title refers to a state of increased agitation, confusion, disorientation and anxiety that typically occurs in the late afternoon or evening in some individuals affected with dementia.
The play opens with Betty on a bed in a care home displaying realistic signs of vagueness. Either side of the room are two doors through which Teresa and Alyssa come and go as each scene moves. To the rear of the stage is a window through which we see changes in the light and darkness of the days as time progresses.
The story appears to be well researched and though not all autobiographical some parts are from Muthy’s own family experience with the disease. We see how difficult it is for all affected and it gives us a glimpse into the realities of caring for someone afflicted by it.
There is an outstanding performance from Hazel Maycock, whose portrayal of Betty is worth the price of admission alone. She certainly conveys to the audience a very realistic version of a dementia sufferer with an unnerving amount of confusion yet remembering well her beloved late husband Jimmy. Whilst her marriage was an important part of her life that she hasn’t forgotten, arguably it does form a little too much of the play. Aasiya Shah makes Alyssa a believable character whose life has gone off the rails but has a deep down love for her Nan and wants to take her from the care home for one last holiday. The third cast member Nadia Nadif as Teresa has less of a character to get to grips with, though it is clear she finds Alyssa’s sudden appearance an annoyance as she struggles to do what she think is best for her mum.
The sound design (Dinah Mullen) enhances the production. The mix of white noise and excerpts of 60s pop songs helps to give an idea of how Betty’s brain is working. The lighting design (Pablo Fernandez Baz) works well and particularly so in the last scene.
Whilst some parts of the performance did seem to drag a little on occasions, director Helena Bell generally makes the performance flow well. Overall, whilst Sundowning is not a fun night out at the theatre, congratulations should be given to all involved in this thought provoking production which can only raise the awareness and better understanding of dementia.