Playing For Time, Playhouse, Salisbury<!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Auditions are nerve-racking at the best of times, but imagine what it must have been like to be given a try-out for the famous women's orchestra in Auschwitz. If you failed, it was the gas chamber. If you passed, you survived - but at a terrible price. You'd have to play stirring tunes to jolly along new arrivals. Your services might be called upon by the monstrous Dr Mengele in his experiments to gauge the effects of music on the mad. You might see members of your own family entering the camp as you bashed out enlivening pieces precariously re-orchestrated for the motley collection of instruments to hand. And it would be your job to lift the spirits and massage the sensibilities of the SS after another hard day of trying to enslave the rest of the world.

The ethics and the mechanics of survival are the subject of Playing For Time. Arthur Miller based his 1980 play for television on the memoirs of the half-Jewish French singer, Fania Fénelon, who escaped death in the camp as a member of this ensemble. In an eloquent and beautifully-judged production at Salisbury Playhouse, Joanna Read now directs the English premiere of the stage version. On television, the central role was played by Vanessa Redgrave, a choice which provoked outrage in the Jewish community because of her well-known support of the Palestinian cause. Gaunt and emaciated-looking, Redgrave took the method acting route to the part. On stage, the excellent Joanna Riding appears - like all the other women - at her normal body-weight, the characters' shaven head suggested by little caps. The director has wisely decided that too "realistic" an approach would be insensitive in the theatre. The horror of the camp is not sanitised - there's a deeply unsettling soundtrack of female screams, barking dogs, and the hiss of gas - but the production's finely-judged mix of moral passion, tact, and conscious artifice prohibits the pornographic illusion of documentary immediacy.

Riding plays Fania as a caustic, rather imperious woman, who - in a manner that both inspires and irritates - expects of others the same ruthless honesty she requires of herself. Earlier this year, the Royal Court staged a drama about Jews who were forced to enact a long, minutely-scripted charade of being a happy, ideal show-camp during a visit by the Red Cross. For the women in the Auschwitz orchestra, the excruciating twist in the imposition is that if "music is the holiest activity of mankind", playing to their barbaric captors could be seen as a desecration of this practice. There's a wonderful sequence where Riding accompanies herself singing "Un Bel Di Vedremo" from Madam Butterfly and the pain of having to prostitute herself to an audience headed by Dr Mengele paradoxically enhances the tortured rapture of her delivery, a complication quite lost on the smug listeners.

The irony is that (at least in this disputed account of her) the woman to whom music means the most is also the one who has the fewest qualms about serving it up to the enemy. Played by a gloweringly intense and touchy Louise Yates, the conductor, Alma Rosé (niece of Gustav Mahler) drives and disciplines her orchestra (whose performances here are nicely calculated to sound like an eager, scratchy school band) as though they were the Berlin Philharmonic. The character arouses ambivalent feelings. Like the conductor Furtwangler (whom she invokes), she evidently feels that artists are privileged people entitled to make political compromises for the sake of their art. It can't be disputed, though, that these women owe their lives to her. The piece is full of such humanising contradictions. For example, Fania declares "I am a woman, not a tribe" as a rebuke to the ugly ideological wrangling among her fellow-inmates. But having torn off half the Star of David, as is her right as a half-Gentile, she finds herself crossly sewing it back on. "I'm doing it because I'm doing it," is her likeably exasperated explanation. Highly recommended.