Writer: Arthur Miller
Based on the memoir by: Fania Fenelon
Director: Richard Beecham
Composer, Lyricist &Musical Director: Sam Kenyon
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
The set is bleak, dark and grey, with skeletal trees that seem symbolic of the whole concentration camp experience. When the group of women is arrested by the Nazis and transported in barbaric conditions eastwards to the infamous Auschwitz hellhole, it seems that there is no hope left for them. Their fate is sealed and, like hundreds before them, they will end up in the space beneath the chimney where the lethal gas is piped in.
However amid this group is Fania Fenelon; famous singer and cabaret star in Paris, musical genius, and, unfortunately, a Jew. Horrified by the shaved heads, the communal showers, the endless smoke, the careless disregard for the dead – and where are all the children? – Fania’s insistence is that “we need an aim”. When she is recognised for her musical skill (“can anyone here sing Madame Butterfly?”), she resolves to try to sing for her survival with the small orchestra of female prisoners kept alive to entertain their Nazi captors. Her celebrity status even earns her the advantage of comfortable boots and a change of clothing – she is actually honoured with a symbolic red jacket that stands out so vividly from the rest of the grey and colourless costumes that fill the stage, and was employed so effectively in the Schindler’s List film, to represent hope – as well as the red blood shed by Jews. There’s a constant antagonism between the Jewish women and the Polish girls, since the latter feel privileged that they “will go home, and the Jews will be gassed”. However, being a member of the orchestra seems to somewhat level out this discrepancy. Racial differences apart though, a feeling of desperation runs throughout the play, the women are only as good as their next performance in front of the German officers, and any slip in standards could spell their annihilation.
The play covers several themes: there’s violence as can be expected – although much of this is implied, rather than acted out; favours are earned from Nazi officers in the time-honoured way of desperate girls; lesbian liaisons inevitably occur among lonely and deprived women living so closely together; there’s a suggestion that female German officers could possibly have had a little sympathy; and the whole thing is bound by the theme of beautifully performed classical music and singing.
Every member of the cast plays his or her part with total dedication, and it seems unbelievable that so many women are willing to shave off their hair in order to truly live their rôles. Sian Phillips is amazing as Fania, with a presence and singing voice that are perfect for the character – can this brilliant actress really be in her 80s?! Melanie Heslop as Fania’s protégé Marianne plays the rôle of desperate girl-turned-prostitute depressingly well; and Amanda Hadingue as Alma Rose comes over as pathetically eager to please any German who comes along with her beloved music. Her violin solo before the interval break had everyone in The Crucible Theatre spellbound.
Despite everything, this is overall a play depicting hope and the sheer power of the average mortal to survive unimaginable horrors. The relief is palpable among the audience as the final scene is played out, complete with colour and normality, in a Brussels tearoom. Some did survive whatever was thrown at them, and Fania Fenelon chronicled her part of it in her autobiography The Musicians of Auschwitz. Thanks to the playwright Arthur Miller, these memories are now on the stage, and it is possible to take a glimpse, albeit a small and sanitised one, of what suffering members of the human race can inflict on one another. In Fania’s own words – “she’s human: you don’t think that’s a problem?” Food for thought indeed, if only these poor victims had food…
Runs until: Saturday 4 April 2015