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Playing For Time by Arthur Miller - Sheffield Crucible

Published by: Paul Tyree on 20th Mar 2015 | View all blogs by Paul Tyree

Playing for Time

By Arthur Miller

Based on the memoir of Fania Fenelon


Playing for Time now being staged on the Crucible main stage concerns the story of a well known singer and musician caught up in the horrors of Auschwitz because of her half Jewish heritage. Taken from her home and placed with others on a train headed who knows where and towards what fate, this quickly becomes a survivors and witnesses account of the holocaust.

Because of her local celebrity and talent she is quickly marked out for the Auschwitz orchestra, even saving a young girl that she had taken under her wing and protected on the long train journey there. Together they enter a privileged but still under the threat of slaughter at any second rag tag band that are doing their best to entertain the officers and guards of the camp.

Quickly Fania becomes the focus of the band as they learn that she is able to orchestrate new pieces and therefore increase the bands usefulness for the camp. However as the play progresses we witness her humanity and resolve slowly stripped away as her body and spirit begin to fail her. The constant stream of thousands being led to their deaths and into the ovens begin to even overcome her natural human desire to survive.

Many of the other women in the band find ways to survive that equal Fania’s abilities. Some turn ever deeper into their Jewish religion, some become tyrants, some whores and some seek solace in the arms of each other. All find ways to get through the constant worry of what might be to come and to block out the horrors they know exist just outside their sleeping quarters. 

As you can tell from the above description this is not the easiest of watches, nor is it without issues. For much of the play the Nazis are precisely that, the one dimensional Nazi you can find on offer from any WWII movie from the 40’s and 50’s. They are evil and without depth of any kind. Only towards the end of the play when one female Nazi mourns for a young boy she had quasi-adopted and who has obviously gone off to be gassed do we see any kind of human feeling.

The genius of the play resides in the character of Fania and her assertion throughout that ‘we are human’. All around her including her fellow inmates are in turns seen to be much less than that, all of them protecting their own small concerns before the much bigger ones of humanity. Indeed, throughout, some of the behaviour of those in captivity could be classed as just as bad as their Nazi captors.


Sian Phillips

(Photo by Mark Douet)

It is, however, a magnificent evening at the theatre because of the transcendent and beautiful central performance by Sian Phillips. She really holds this play and offers it up to you as an absolute theatrical gift. In the hands of a lesser actress it would be easy for the horrors on show to cause the audience to turn away from this, but because of her, even though it is never an easy thing to see you feel that you absolutely have to watch it. It’s captivating, horrific, life affirming and serves as a beautiful testament to Fania's life and the one recurring theme that is mentioned throughout, that she must be a witness, no matter how terrible that request is. I am not a witness to the holocaust and I am glad of it, but I am glad for pieces of theatre like this that serve as a testament to those that were.

Get a ticket if you can. This wont be forgotten!

Sheffield Crucible Main Stage


Telephone Numbers
Box Office: 0114 249 6000


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