A GRAVE GRANDEUR, AN UNFORGOTTEN HORROR
Hard to overstate the impact, the sense of event, commemoration and bleak grandeur in this extraordinary evening. There is, in this 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, obvious solemnity in staging Arthur Miller’s “memory play” from the testament of Fania Fénélon. The Parisian chanteuse survived by forced membership of a rag-bag orchestra recruited for the entertainment of the SS officers and, horribly, to march fellow-victims to the gas chambers and pander to Dr Mengele’s experiments on music and insanity.
But add to that a central performance as Fania from Sian Phillips: eighty-one now, a war-baby with early memories of being taken outside at night to watch Swansea burning. We use some words too lightly in the arts, but Phillips’ wholly committed gently controlled performance is a marvel of fearlessness, sorrow and sincerity. It is one of those rare memorable nights when you come to believe you are not watching acting at all, but remembered experience: a necessary ritual.
It is a huge cast: fourteen women and three men, amplified with extras from Sheffield People’s Theatre. So shaven-headed women in rags are herded and surged around the big open theatre, edges of violence being glimpsed – as they were by the appalled, conflicted Fenelon – around a central area where for much of the play the hungry, fearful musicians struggle with ill-assorted instruments under the nervy, disciplinarian Alma Rosé. She was Gustav Mahler’s niece: the Jewess virtuosa violinist who with Fenelon’s orchestrating skills and grainy, Weimar cabaret voice somehow held them together.
Richard Beecham’s direction is supported by extraordinary lighting and design by Richard Howell and Ti Green, creating a darkness visible, a grey despair around the vivid individuals . It is further served by unobtrusively sinister sound design by Melanie Wilson – whistles, thuds, shouts, guard dogs barking, at last the distant artillery . And even more by the musical direction and some lyrics by Sam Kenyon, creating shattering moments. Here are the Commandant and Dr Mengele sitting splay-legged with imperial power, sentimental over the desperate gentleness of the scratch orchestra playing von Suppé, and saying approvingly “it strengthens us for this difficult work of ours” – that is, murdering twelve thousand a day.
At another moment, after playing marches as the prisoners head for the ovens and the smoke rises, Fania must sing Madam Butterfly’s hopeful song about “a thread of smoke rising on the horizon” from the ship bringing back her lover. Congratulated by the Commandant, she bravely denies her stage persona with “My name is not Fenelon. I am Fanny Goldstein”. A terrible silence.
But nothing is milked, nothing is sentimental, and Miller allows rein to the tensions between Jew and Gentile, Pole and French, the Zionist and the racially indifferent, the despairing and the defiant. Nor does he flinch from the brutalities that brutalized people pass on: the Polish women guards shoutingly bully the “Jew shit”. Marianne asks early on: “Why are they doing this? What do they get from it?” Unanswerable.
Sian Phillips is the powerful centre, but around her other performances rise too. Melanie Heslop is Marianne, moving from naive fear to greedy dissolution, whoring herself to the very executioner on the day her friend’s beaten body is left hanging dead in the rain until dark. Amanda Hadingue is stiffly Austrian as Alma, Kate Lynn-Evans is Mandel the officer whose half-humanity becomes, to Fenelon, the “problem”. A problem horribly reflected in her own honest conflict about using her art in collaboration, struggling to hold something back yet survive to testify .
And always the Beethoven and Puccini, the cabaret songs and accordion, remind us that this was Europe, this was recent. That savagery is not something alien and far away, for humanity can go downhill very fast and very far, without losing the superficial trappings of efficiency and aesthetic culture. As Fania says, “The aim is to remember. Everything”.
Box Office 0114 249 6000 http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk to 4 April