Playing for Time

Arthur Miller, adapted from Fania Fénelon's book
Salisbury Playhouse
(2005)

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It was probably better, prisoners are reported to have believed, to arrive at Auschwitz as a musician than as a doctor.

That's a statement entirely explained in Salisbury Playhouse's UK premiere of Arthur Miller's dramatisation of Fania Fenelon's personal account from her experience of life and death in the holocaust.

Incredible as it still seems, the women's orchestra at Auscwitz was one of several similar experiments in the concentration camps of the Third Reich. Architect of them all, apparently, was the notorious Dr Mengele who was particularly focused on the effect of music on the the psychiatric patients en route for the gas chamber.

Artistic director Joanna Read excels herself with this production. For a start, she has assembled a highly talented company of 24 actor-musicians, under the musical baton of John Owen Edwards. Former music director of D'Oyly Carte, his work has included also Trevor Nun's National Theatre production of Oklahoma! as well as Evita (Prince Edward).

While this is an ensemle performance of exceptional quality, there are outstanding individual performances, such as those of Joanna Riding and Rosalie Craig (Fania and Marianne) who from the depths of Auschwitz sing the glorious duets from Puccini's Madam Butterfly.

No less enchanting is Louise Yates as Alma Rose, niece of Gustav Mahler, conductor of the camp orchestra whose unexpeced death is the subject of a moving scene in which the Germans lay her out for the musicians to pay their respects.

Caitriona Hins is splendid as the evil Frau Scmidt while other excellent performanced include Terry Taplin's unforgettable Schmuel.

Designer Su Houser's setting feels grimly accurate and the musical score, sensitively handled by the players with just the right hint of off-key stridence that must surely emanate from incarcerated players with tears in their eyes.

In such an atmosphere, even the sweet strains of Mendelssohn's famous violin concerto, not to mention Franz Lehar's popular "Merry Widow Waltz", hang on the Salisbury air with a bitterness that is quite painful.

The production runs until Saturday 26 November.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole