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Playing for Time

Sian Phillips as Fania Fenelon and cast of Playing for Time. Photo: Mark Douet Sian Phillips as Fania Fenelon and cast of Playing for Time. Photo: Mark Douet
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Music might be the food of love, but it became the staple of life itself for the half-starved ensemble of Jewish women musicians of Auschwitz made to perform Beethoven and Puccini to please SS commandants while thousands of prisoners were daily being herded into gas chambers.

A discordant tension between music as an art form, a means of survival and an instrument of total repression runs right through Arthur Miller’s rarely seen dramatisation of his made-for-TV adaptation of Fania Fenelon’s book recalling her experience in this orchestra from hell and now staged to honour both the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the centenary of Miller’s birth.

With a large cast of fine-tuned actor-musicians, supported by members of Sheffield People’s Theatre, Richard Beecham’s production completely overrides any lingering filmic aspects of the play. Fania’s recollections are presented as a haunting theatrical memoryscape, with an eerie soundtrack and stark searchlights focused on a sunken ash-grey set that suggests both death camp barracks and a grim abyss between despair and hope.

Magnificently melancholic as Fania, with her head shaven and looking all skin and bone, Sian Phillips gives a peerless portrayal of a woman looking back in wonder while still wrestling with the existential lunacy of collaboration through music, her formidable acting technique and sure theatrical instincts invisibly linking remembrance of horrors past with our own troubled times.

At the end, when Fania and two other survivors meet in a restaurant, her request to a waiter is for “something absolutely extraordinary”. But Phillips and the ensemble have already delivered it.

Dates: March 12-April 4. PN March 18.

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A superb production led by Sian Phillips’ devastatingly honest central performance