Playing Primo; Antony Sher's Memoir of His Travails in Producing a One-Man Show about Primo Levi Is in a Class All Its Own

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Byline: DAVID SEXTON

SOMETIMES a single book seems to complete a whole genre, rendering any subsequent addition to the form redundant. One such culminating classic was Nicholas Craig: I, An Actor by Christopher Douglas and Nigel Planer, first published in 1988 and reissued in a movingly updated new edition in 2001 (Methuen, [pounds sterling]12.99).

I, An Actor was, in a very real sense, the theatrical memoir to end them all. It had everything. Nicholas Craig, as the foremost thespian of his generation, had done it all, from Shakespeare to farce, from a coffee ad to Peter Brook's Di'k, from Ebeneezer Tumblewhiskers on TV to the King of the Thargons in the movie Gallacticus 439. And he told it like it was.

Acting has never been more powerfully explained. "The actor must know what it's like to be everything from a Mongol Emperor to an Elderly Passer-By, he must know how the Frenchman feels when the alarm clock goes off, he must know how the alarm clock feels, he must experience the pain of the carrot on the chopping board, or how is he to tell the Truth? The Truth is the most important thing. It is to the actor what paint is to the artist, what ink is to the writer, what cement is to the bricky. It really is very, very important."

There seemed no more to say. Yet now, astoundingly, the genre of the theatrical memoir has been taken a little further. If Craig has not yet been completely outclassed, he has at least been radically challenged by Sir Antony Sher's new book, Primo Time (Nick Hern Books, [pounds sterling]9.99). It's a diary of his well-reviewed one-man show at the National Theatre last year, Primo.

Sher starred in his own adaptation of Primo Levi's great narrative

of his experiences in Auschwitz, If This Is A Man, in a production directed by his friend Richard Wilson (Victor Meldrew).

Sir Antony has contributed greatly to the literature of luvviedom, as it is so unacceptably known, before.

Who can forget his account of his legendary performance as Richard III on crutches at Stratford in 1984, in Year of the King? Then there is his remarkable autobiography, Beside Myself, with its intimate disclosures of the agonies he has had to overcome, from cottaging to cocaine addiction. The illustrations included his own painting The Male Line, featuring portraits of himself at various-ages, including a central nude study at 47 with a purple but modestly proportioned member, and of his father and grandfather, executed in "oils, cocaine and Dad's ashes".

But in Primo he has excelled himself even. All actors identify with their characters. Here that identification has led Sher to compare his travails in mounting and performing his play - perhaps not so very different from the troubles facing any theatrical production? - to the horrors that confronted Primo Levi in Auschwitz. This has never been done before in quite the same way. For fairly obvious reasons.

It starts even as he begins excitedly to write the monologue. "I'm in a kind of fever. Primo Levi talks of something similar when he takes the chemistry exam in Auschwitz..."

When the RSC management are reported to be miffed that he has publicly criticised them, he explodes: "Where are we? Apartheid South Africa? Nazi Germany?"

As part of the rehearsals for the play, four other actors who did not eventually appear on stage were hired to pretend to be German guards and take Sher on a version of Levi's train journey to Auschwitz. …