Actress Sian Phillips portrays a singer whose talent saved her life amid the horrors of the Holocaust in Playing for Time at the Crucible Theatre.
Sian stars as Fania Fénelon, whose memoirs of her time in the Auschwitz concentration camp women’s orchestra formed the basis of Arthur Miller’s play.
Fania was a celebrity cabaret star who was deported to Auschwitz with millions of other Jewish people. She was forced to become part of the orchestra, which played as prisoners left the camp gates to work and also as they were herded into the gas chambers.
The players were treated slightly better than other prisoners and also avoided the forced labour that the others had to do.
The Welsh star said: “I didn’t know a lot about her before and I didn’t know a lot about the orchestra. I didn’t realised she’d survived and lived so long and went back to work, singing in cabaret all over Europe.
“I was lucky enough to hear a record of her, singing one of the songs she composed, My Accordion.”
Sian said of the play: “It’s an amazing story of these women’s lives and it’s really told in a good way. Sometimes they didn’t get on.
“It was very claustrophobic and difficult for them of course and the play doesn’t shirk that really. They have quarrels and fights and disagreements. Various people were having different kinds of breakdowns at different times.
“It’s the music that holds it together.”
She added: “Suddenly the power of music, even in that rehearsal room when we’re just pretending, lifts it up. That’s what made it bearable for the women, the power of music.
“They were hated by the other prisoners. They didn’t realise that at first. They didn’t have a nice time but it was better than the others.
“It’s so moving when a trained person picks up a violin and plays it like an angel. It’s an exciting, extraordinary feeling.
“That’s what makes the play bearable. It’s a terrible story and that’s what makes it work for the audience.”
The actress still best known for her role in 1976 TV drama I, Claudius is also a singer. That has given her a little insight into what the performers must have felt, doing something they loved for their torturers in the hellish environment of the Nazi concentration camps.
“You understand they had this conduit to something better through their voices or instruments. It made life very conflicted for Fania.
“She loved music but realised it was terrible to play for the SS. It was something she didn’t want to do.
“She didn’t want to do it wonderfully well but she had to or they would have gone to the gas chamber.”
Sian said that Fania’s own words left her in no doubt of what she went through: “She says ‘I go there every night’ and for the rest of her life she went there every night. I don’t think they ever got away from it.
“I do think some people thought it’s just a cop-out, I’m not facing up to life, in this privileged position of being able to escape into music.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like having to perform for people you despised and were frightened of. I have to sing two songs to the SS in concert during the show. I’ve got to do it well.
“If you are a professional you have an instinct to do it anyway and then you hate yourself afterwards.”
Sian hasn’t heard much of Fania’s music, even though she was a star in her day: “I’ve only heard a couple of her songs. They were very light. She didn’t record much because she was a busy, busy international big star in Paris and then after that all over Europe.
“She didn’t have an operatic voice but she had to sing One Fine Day from Madame Butterfly. That got her into the orchestra. She managed to pull something off that was good enough to get her into the orchestra and make the SS admire her.”
That song is causing Sian some headaches as well. She said: “I’ve got to sing One Fine Day and it’s a nightmare. When I tell my friends I’ve got to do it there’s a stunned silence.
“One friend said, ‘You’re having to sing One Fine Day? There was a long pause and she said, ‘Oh, Sian...’ But you have to do it if you’re up against it.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have to stand up and sing that.”
Sian said that she has been very busy since the last time she appeared in Sheffield two years ago in the premiere of the musical This Is My Family.
She went straight into the Alan Bennett play People at the National Theatre in London and then appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest in Washington DC. Then followed a different production of the classic Oscar Wilde comedy in London.
She said: “I was finishing that production, which meant I couldn’t rehearse when This Is My Family was revived in Sheffield last year. I was really upset.
“I tried to get of the last few weeks on tour but it just wasn’t going to work out. I love that show and I was very, very envious when I knew it was happening.”
Sian will put her musical talents to more use this year when she appears at Proms in the summer, singing the music of Stephen Sondheim. That’s certainly more familiar territory than Puccini.
Playing for Time has been revived by Sheffield Theatres to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this year and also the centenary of Arthur Miller’s birth.
The play runs at the Crucible from tonight, Thursday, to April 4.
Box office: at the Crucible, call 0114 249 6000 or go online at www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk