Drowned or Saved? ★★★ (Tristan Bates Theatre, 8 November 2018)

Geoffrey Williams’ new play recounts Primo Levi, the renowned Italian Jewish chemist, writer, and holocaust survivor, as he struggles to finish his final book before his death in 1987. Holed up in his dark office, Levi fights off haunting hallucinations, whilst seeking support from the prophet Elijah. His need to finish his novel and make sense of the seemingly senseless suffering he had witnessed in Auschwitz consumes him, as he bats off attempts from his wife and housemaid to eat or sleep, and instead relays his experiences in an attempt to understand humanity.

Williams’ production captures Primo Levi’s suffering poignantly. Marco Gambino, portraying both the calm, methodical and emotionally traumatised sides of Levi’s nature simultaneously, is excellent throughout. Intrusive memories of Levi’s fellow Auschwitz sufferers haunt the stage, embodied by Eve Nicker, whose presence serves to provide constant reminders of Levi’s possible survivors guilt. The lighting and sound design work alongside her appearances to harmoniously define the transition from these scenes in Levi’s inner mind to his claustrophobic office.

Dark as it is, there are touches of comic relief in scenes between Levi and his Italian housemaid as she attempts to bring light, physical and metaphorical, into his life. Sadly these moments become few and far between as we delve deeper in Levi’s memories and imagination in his analytical approach to understanding how something so awful as the holocaust occurred. The effect is profoundly emotive, and feels very timely with its references to confused morality. Personally I felt it tipped into being slightly too sorrowful, as the immense suffering of those affected is difficult to combine with an audience’s desire for catharsis.

The narrative structure also feels a touch drawn out in places, particularly in the longer scenes between Levi and Elijah in his endeavours for understanding. This considered, it struck me as strange that the play finishes just shy of Levi’s death, which as tragic is it is, would have been a compelling event to tackle dramatically. Although it is widely accepted that Levi committed suicide, others question whether his death was accidental. It is an interesting choice to omit such a crucial part of Levi’s later life, but at least this leaves the audience with a shred of hope for Levi. This questionable hope that the audience is left with is summarised by the title – whether Levi was himself a member of the drowned, drowned in the weight of his thoughts and memories, or whether, through his incredible books, he manages to save himself, as a man retaining his humanity despite immense suffering.

Review written for Miro Magazine

Images by Ewa Ferdynus

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