Drowned or Saved? review at Tristan Bates Theatre, London – ‘poignant and timely’
As a Holocaust survivor, the Italian-Jewish writer and chemist Primo Levi bore witness to the horrors of Auschwitz in a series of powerful books. Writing with scientific objectivity and calm compassion, he tried to understand how this dehumanisation could happen on such a massive scale. But, as Geoffrey Williams’s debut play Drowned or Saved? shows, Levi was never able to escape psychologically from his traumatic experiences.
We see him in his study late at night, depressed and unable to sleep, as he labours to get under the skin of a character in the story he cannot finish. Calling on the prophet Elijah for help, he is transported back to the war as vivid memory and creative imagination merge to evoke a nightmarish concentration camp.
A portrait of an artist possessed by his work, Drowned or Saved? struggles to develop into a fully fledged drama, though Williams’s own production prevents the show from becoming too static.
Baska Wesolowska’s wooden-slatted design suggests one of the cattle wagons that took Jews to the slaughter of Auschwitz and Rachael Murray’s sound conveys a rumbling train journey as well as the cacophony of the camp, while Matt Leventhall’s lighting changes mark the shifts between present and past.
Italian actor Marco Gambino gives Levi a haunted, world-weary air, tinged with survival guilt, with Alex Marchi multi-roling as the spiritual guide Elijah and a Nazi commandant among others. Paula Cassina doubles as Levi’s wife and housekeeper, both trying to persuade him to go outside into the sun, and Eve Niker wordlessly portrays the suffering victims that Levi cannot forget.
Tragically, Levi only finally achieved closure after apparently committing suicide aged 67 in 1987. With antisemitism and the far right on the rise in Europe and America, this poignant play is a timely reminder of his testimony.