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BWW Review: DROWNED OR SAVED?, Tristan Bates Theatre

BWW Review: DROWNED OR SAVED?, Tristan Bates Theatre

BWW Review: DROWNED OR SAVED?, Tristan Bates Theatre Years after surviving the Holocaust, Primo Levi (Marco Gambino) is a haunted man who segregates himself in his study to try to come to terms with the terrible events he witnessed. He writes stories to better understand his history, conjuring the prophet Elijah (Alex Marchi) to guide him through his recollections. The biblical figure, however, unearths the darker buried memories that prey on Levi in his persistent nightmares, making them become real once again.

Geoffrey Williams pens and directs a profoundly visceral and affecting play. The attention to the language of Drowned or Saved? strikes the eye immediately and keeps surprising until the end with its light dusting of Italian and German all over. The actors master the switches and the linguistic flow appears seamless, probably thanks to the multilingual skills of the whole speaking cast.

Gambino is Levi's dead-ringer on stage. Visions hound a loving and caring man, unafraid to use humour and see positivity where others can't. He shows no pity for himself and tries to appease his mind by writing; the audience walks in the auditorium to Gambino already sitting at his desk, rereading the same pages over and over again, smoking, a troubled look on his face anticipating the depths of his scars.

An earth-shattering performance for Marchi, who takes on Elijah and a handful of other roles who help to tidy up Levi's mind. Physical and vocal prowess characterise the diverse personas to deliver emphatic performances which actively collide with Gambino's stoicism and strength. The prophet holds Levi accountable of his own crimes in the camp, nearly guilt-tripping him into acknowledging what haunts him while he's trying to push aside.

The duo exchange palpable energy, which shifts according to what Marchi's characters give to Gambino's ex-prisoner. From Alex's Nazi sadism to the iciness of Höss' deposition, Marchi comes off as a well-rounded actor with plenty of aces up his sleeve. Supporting the main pair, Paula Cassina becomes the female presence in Levi's life. As Mrs Giordanino, his maid, she's painfully Italian (albeit the actress being Brazilian), chit-chatting in nearly broken English and intercalating full sentences in Italian.

The most chilling apparition of Levi's psyche is in the shape of Null Achtzehn, a fellow prisoner of Auschwitz. Played by actress Eve Niker, he never speaks. The character haunts the stage limping and shaking in a terrifying cacophony of gasps of air, heaves, and convulsive breaths, permanently scarring Levi and leaving a lasting impression on the public.

As a director, Williams is subtle and effective. He doesn't meander his cast around aimlessly, seeking a poignant and straight approach instead. Commendable is the use of light and darkness, which designer Matt Leventhall uses to transport the audience to cold and horrid climates from Levi's writing room in Turin.

Baska Wesolowska curates the costumes and set. She gives the writer's studio an eerie resemblance to the cattle trains used to deport people to the lagers; the rich and reddish tones of the wood come to oppose the cool features of the lighting design with shocking emotional results.

Williams delineates the figure of Levi with specificity and heart and shows the invisible effects of pointless brutality. He's cutting in his writing and paints the vast spectrum of Levi's indignation, avoiding reducing him to the image of a survivor and succeeding in showing the sophisticated faceting of his life as one. This side of Drowned or Saved? is what elevates the work, turning it into a complex analysis of an exceptional man.

Drowned or Saved? runs at Tristan Bates Theatre until 24 November.

Photo credit: Ewa Ferdynus

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