How music saved their lives

Playing For Time at Sheffield Theatres ''By Arthur Miller
Playing For Time at Sheffield Theatres ''By Arthur Miller

A rarely-performed play by Arthur Miller, telling the story of the women’s orchestra of Auschwitz, is being staged at the Crucible.

Playing for Time is based on the memoir of Fania Fénelon, Jewish cabaret singer and one of the concentration camp musicians kept alive to make music for their Nazi captors.

Playing for Time rehearsals: director Richard Beecham

Playing for Time rehearsals: director Richard Beecham

“It started as a screenplay which Miller then adapted for the stage and it’s only once been produced professionally in the UK, possibly even in Europe,” says director Richard Beecham

“It’s very rarely done probably because it has such an enormous cast and also it’s a very difficult subject matter. But with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth it seemed the perfect time to do it.

“And you’ve only got to open a newspaper to read about atrocities, killing people in a Jewish supermarket in Paris and an attack on a synagogue in Copenhagen.”

It was in fact seeing news last summer of the shooting of four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels that got him thinking about Miller’s play which ends 20 years after the war with a reunion in Brussels between Fania Fénelon and two orchestra members.

“I am both Jewish and a piano player so this story about the Holocaust and the fact that music helped these women survive speaks to me,” continues Beecham who curated a Holocaust Memorial Day event in his home city of Newcastle.

“It’s remarkable that not a single member of the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz perished, went to the gas chamber. Alma Rose, the orchestra leader, was truly someone who saved lives. A lot of the women in the orchestra were not great musicians, certainly not professionals but amateurs or middle-class girls who had played a bit of violin or flute but Alma saved their lives by working them to the bone to get them up to scratch.”

The various instruments will be played by the ensemble of actor-musicians. “Sometimes my musical director will say, ‘They’re playing too well’,” reports Beecham. “Because, of course, a lot of the women in the orchestra were not great musicians, certainly not professionals but amateurs or middle-class girls who had played a bit of violin or flute but Alma saved their lives by working them to the bone to get them up to scratch.”

“They had to play music, but can you imagine having to do so when you were desperate and starving, freezing and riddled with disease?”

The cast, headed by Sian Phillips as Fania and augmented by 17 members of Sheffield People’s Theatre, the community intergenerational acting company, will not attempt to reflect the physical state of the prisoners.

“We are not taking an overly realistic approach – with Auschwitz that’s impossible – so we’re taking the approach of suggesting the environment and we are capturing the spirit rather than the literal world of it,” explains Beecham.

l Playing for Time runs at the Crucible until April 4.