It’s Miller, but not as we know it. There are a few reasons why Playing For Time is one of the lesser-performed Arthur Miller plays and why it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the likes of The Crucible, A View From The Bridge and Death Of A Salesman – mainly because this isn’t really an Arthur Miller play as we usually understand it.
Instead, Playing For Time was originally produced as a CBS television movie, an adaptation of Auschwitz survivor Fania Fenelon’s memoir, with a script written by Miller. It was a film laced with controversy from the start – Fenelon’s fellow prisoners questioned her slightly self-aggrandizing version of events and she objected to the casting of Vanessa Redgrave due to her political views on Israel and Palestine.
Fenelon’s story is a powerful one: a successful musician in her native Paris, she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz where she became a member of the camp’s ‘Girl Orchestra’ (led by Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler), a collection of musicians who played at the gate when the work gangs left for the day and then again when they returned. Also, horrifically, the orchestra provided musical accompaniment as the camp’s inmates were sent to the gas chamber. It sounds grim (and there are many grim moments), but the bond between the women means that this ultimately becomes an uplifting tale.
The casting of Sian Phillips as Fenelon is an intriguing one – at 81, she’s a good forty or fifty years older than the age Fenelon was when she was sent to Auschwitz. Miller wrote Playing For Time as a memory play and we see events through the older woman’s eyes as she recalls them. It’s a powerful and affecting performance from Phillips; she’s onstage for practically all of the play’s two and a half hours and somehow manages to convey strength and fragility at the same time; rake-thin, and with her head shaved especially for the part, she exudes a quiet kind of power.
The rest of the almost exclusively all-female cast are never overshadowed by Phillips. Amanda Hadingue plays Alma with a barely concealed desperation for survival that proves to be almost unbearably poignant, while Melanie Heslop is excellent as Marianne, whose descent into prostitution demonstrates exactly what it took to survive in such grim days. One impressive aspect of the cast’s performances is that, despite looking all very similar with shaved heads and plain uniforms, it soon becomes easy to distinguish one woman from another.
Ti Green’s set is also very striking – using a lowered stage to represent the camp (a step closer towards Hell, perhaps?), Green’s design is stark, grey and barren, perfectly encapsulating all the hopelessness that these women must have suffered. It makes the moments of beauty like a flurry of snow falling all the more effective. Then, of course, there’s also the music: a succession of beautifully played classical selections (helped by members of the local community group Sheffield People’s Theatre), with Phillips giving her best Edith Piaf impression in the scenes she’s required to sing.
There is, of course, the whole ethical debate over whether events as horrific as the Holocaust should be used for entertainment – personally, I’m of the view that nothing is off-limits as long as the victims of such events are treated with respect. There’s no danger of that not happening here, director Richard Beecham only hints at the horrors that were happening right outside the orchestra room which makes set-pieces like the shaving of the women prisoners’ heads all the more powerful. Other moments that could have easily lapsed into cliché, like the blossoming lesbian relationship between two prisoners, are treated with sensitivity and the scene towards the end where an ailing Fenelon is tenderly washed and dressed by two unknown figures becomes impossibly moving, given the inhumanity shown to her during the previous two hours. It is, above all, a play of hope and one that celebrates the human spirit.