Antony Sher walks into the light at the start of "Primo," the altogether beautiful solo show whose topic, unsurprisingly, is darkness. And how could the subject matter be otherwise, given its source: Primo Levi's 1947 humanist classic "This Is a Man," written by a Holocaust survivor who in 1987 would commit suicide by throwing himself down a flight of stairs in the very apartment building where he was born 67 years before.

Antony Sher walks into the light at the start of “Primo,” the altogether beautiful solo show whose topic, unsurprisingly, is darkness. And how could the subject matter be otherwise, given its source: Primo Levi’s 1947 humanist classic “This Is a Man,” written by a Holocaust survivor who in 1987 would commit suicide by throwing himself down a flight of stairs in the very apartment building where he was born 67 years before. As if in tacit acknowledgment of Levi’s end, Sher’s mesmerizing performance is less a celebration of survival than a day-by-day account of the sometimes inexplicable resilience of the human spirit — a durability that, in Levi’s case, got him through the unimaginable only to deliver him ultimately unto death.

The play might sound too depressing for comfort, or worse, guilty of the sanctimoniousness for which too many lesser Holocaust dramas are merely a shorthand. In fact, as adapted by Sher from Stuart Woolf’s English translation of Levi, “Primo” understands that drama has always lied in the sorts of details that here fascinate even as they scald.

And because the writing — and, most notably, Sher’s impressively (and unusually) restrained performance — shy away from sensationalism, the play finds an unspoken gallantry in Levi’s account of events that can never be too familiar.

One listens to “Primo” shocked, of course, by the savagery its speaker experienced — to start with, Levi is “baptized,” as he puts it, with the number 174517 — but equally compelled to encourage the sort of reckoning with history that must continue in our troubling times.

Levi was 24 in December 1943, when he was captured by the fascist militia and incarcerated from late February 1944 in Auschwitz, a destination, we’re told, that some mistook for the Bohemian town of Austerlitz. The play — essentially a skillful filleting of the book — relates the 11 months he spent in the section known as Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, which served as a slave labor camp for a neighboring rubber factory.

It would be easy, and emotionally cathartic, for the show to indulge its character’s (and our) ready-made vitriol, and the unchecked angry outbursts do ring out (and make one wonder how the National’s German constituency will respond).

Mostly, however, “Primo” builds a quiet, searching portrait of life in the camp that exists apart from the greater outrage underscoring every moment. There’s something moving and also haunting about the calm Levi says he finds early on in the sense of people “doing their everyday jobs.” One feels somewhat clammy, too, hearing of the respite afforded by the shower room, where the prisoners, at least for that brief time, felt as if they were alone. And safe.

The average life expectancy at Auschwitz was eight weeks, but Levi, a chemist possessed of a potentially life-saving skill, made it through nearly a year before what he describes as four unsmiling Russians came proffering peace.

Along the way, Sher’s softly spoken, incisive account makes us feel “the dark, still camp waking up,” just as we share in the wondrous salvation that goes with simply having a pair of shoes that fit.

After five months, the inmates constitute so many “veterans” bonded together by the shared incomprehension of their lot. But the bonds, however deep, are cruelly broken, as we discover from Levi’s account of the various Italians (among them Alberto, his bunkmate of six months, or Lorenzo, who smuggles him soup) who came and went.

The narrative never lets us ignore the larger issue — that we are reliving, in Levi’s words ,”an abomination (that) nothing in the world can ever wipe clean again.” But as acted by a bespectacled Sher in the finest performance he’s given since he played the title role in Pam Gems’ “Stanley,” the tone is one less of accusation than of astonishment, however aggrieved. Destroying a man, we hear, is almost as difficult as creating one.

And when freedom finally comes, the actor, his voice higher and sweeter than usual, makes a transfixing, halting gesture back into the light, embarked on a tentative search for potatoes, and for a physical comfort he has long since lost.

Sher’s work is beyond praise, but so is Richard Wilson’s production, which divides the intermissionless piece into a series of carefully shaded movements, almost as if we were watching a symphony composed in the multiple hues of fortitude and grief.

Working on Hildegard Bechtler’s appropriately, ominously empty stage, the flexible Cottesloe space has rarely been as eloquently used as it is by Paul Pyant’s lighting, which in a moment transports us from the infirmary to the showers to lines of people who will live or die based on whether they are told to turn left or right.

And when Levi speaks of being “not even alive enough to know how to kill myself,” it’s impossible not to sit pinioned to your seat at the thought of a man who, in re-discovering life, went on to choose death.

Primo

National Theater: Cottesloe, London; 309 Seats; 27 pounds ($48) Top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in one act, adapted by Antony Sher from Primo Levi's "If This Is a Man." Directed by Richard Wilson.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Paul Pyant; music, Jonathan Goldstein; sound, Rich Walsh. Opened Sept. 30, 2004; reviewed Oct. 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Primo Levi - Antony Sher
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