Playing For Time (Sheffield Crucible)

Siân Phillips anchors the production of Arthur Miller’s play

Siân Phillips as Fania Fénelon
Siân Phillips as Fania Fénelon
© Mark Douet

Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time is based on the memoir of the French musician and Holocaust survivor, Fania Fénelon. It focuses on Fénelon’s time in Auschwitz’s women’s orchestra, who were granted some degree of preferential treatment, and in return were expected to entertain their captors and murderers.

Like every attempt to represent the atrocity of the Holocaust through the medium of art, the play provokes a clamour of complicated ethical questions. Admittedly, Miller does not attempt to represent the Holocaust in its entirety; what he offers is more a philosophical rumination on the place of art amidst horror and inhumanity. But nevertheless, by placing this debate within a mimetic drama, those questions about representation are evoked.

The resulting experience is one, primarily, of awkwardness. It is important to question this response. Is my critical awkwardness the inevitable response of my own inability to process these events? Possibly. But elements of the production, and indeed the play, do not help. For example, I don’t want half a dozen concentration camp guards to suddenly stride through the audience to stir up the fear of Auschwitz, because my theatre seat is so far removed from that horror, that to try and evoke it seems facile. Neither do I want Miller’s uncharacteristically clumsy explorations into the potential humanity of Nazis dramatized through the hysterical breakdown of a female officer, creating almost unplayable scenes for an actress, despite Kate Lynn-Evans's sterling efforts in the role.

This is not to say that the production is without its merits, the most striking of which is the casting of Siân Phillips in the play’s central role; a character that is, until the play’s final scene, several decades younger. By doing so, the production is anchored by Phillips’s extraordinarily sensitive performance, but more than this, it becomes much better able to communicate to the audience that we are looking back on these events subjectively, through this older woman’s eyes.

The production has a stark but striking aestheticism, visible throughout Ti Green’s design, Richard Howell’s lighting, Richard Beecham’s direction, Lucy Hind’s movement work, and even the play’s publicity design. The result is as uncomfortable as it is stunning: the beauty of snow falling softly on bare trees, incongruous with the pain and humiliation of the death camp.

The production finds its greatest strengths in its final moments when, abandoning realistic representation, we witness Fania’s transition from shaven-headed, skeletal camp inmate to exquisitely dressed, sophisticated grand dame. The incredible tenderness with which she is symbolically washed and dressed by two unnamed figures bears the weight of this moment much more successfully than the play’s previous realism can communicate Auschwitz’s unimaginable horror.

Playing for Time runs at Sheffield Crucible until 4 April 2015