Plays examine what it means to be human

The cast of Playing for Time in rehearsal. Picture: Mark Douet
The cast of Playing for Time in rehearsal. Picture: Mark Douet
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In the centenary year of Arthur Miller’s birth two major revivals of the writer’s plays are being staged in the region this month. Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

A CENTURY after his birth, the work of Arthur Miller is still revered around the world and ironically, perhaps here in Britain more than anywhere else.

The irony of course is that Miller is the quintessentially American playwright taken into the hearts of British theatre lovers – today, 
perhaps more so than ever before.

“We all live in the shadow of the American empire and in a sense we all live our own versions of the American Dream, which is why he appears to talk to all of us,” says Richard Beecham, the man who is directing the first of two major Miller revivals coming to Yorkshire this month.

The second director bringing the Great American Playwright to the stage in Yorkshire is Stephen Unwin. His version of Miller’s masterful A View From the Bridge arrives at the Bradford Alhambra at the end of the month.

“What’s great about him is that he writes about the world and big subjects, but he does that by concentrating on hearts and minds and he does it with real power,” says Unwin.

Beecham is in Sheffield, bringing a rare Miller play to the stage in a Sheffield Theatres’ production of Playing For Time, Miller’s play based on the autobiographical memoir of Fania Fenelon. She was a prisoner in Auschwitz who survived by virtue of being of use to the camp’s orchestra. The director bringing the story to stage says: “How can you ever get your head around the fact that one individual can in one minute of the day herd thousands of men and women into a gas chamber to be murdered and then five minutes later walk into the music block of Auschwitz and request to listen to a piece of Beethoven and be transported by the beauty of it?

“How do you get your head around that? That those contradictory impulses can exist in one human being, that’s a kind of metaphor for what he is exploring in this play – what human beings are capable of.”

Miller first wrote Fenelon’s story as a screenplay, but later adapted it for the stage.

Beecham says: “Bringing this play to the stage is a huge project from lots of perspectives. To tackle anything about the Holocaust is of course a huge responsibility and you have to do it with care and integrity,” says Beecham.

“But it’s also a huge project in terms of the sheer numbers of people. There is a company of 17 professional actors and about the same again who are members of the community, part of Sheffield People’s Theatre. It’s a very big 

The sheer number of cast is possibly one of the main reasons why Miller’s play has not been performed since its premiere in 2005 – although the fact that it is made up of 52 short scenes is also likely to be adding to the challenges faced by director Beecham.

“It’s hardly ever been produced. The last production in Britain in 2005 was its European premiere and 
this is the first revival – it’s a difficult subject matter, a large cast which makes it expensive – there are many reasons why it’s not produced, but I have always wanted to do it.

“I’m Jewish and I have family members, and many of my friends also have family, who were affected by the Holocaust.

“This year seemed like the right time for a production of this play, not only because it is 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and also because it’s the centenary of Miller’s birth but because it still feels so relevant.

“You just have to open the newspapers to see anti-Semitic atrocities being committed and it’s not just anti-Semitism, we are seeing a wave of racial intolerance and hatred – this is a timely piece of work for a number of different reasons.”

This production of Playing for Time, then, might as well be a Miller premiere – very few audiences in Yorkshire will have ever seen it. A thrilling prospect, but why? Why is it that a play by Arthur Miller, one lesser known like Playing for Time, or A View From the Bridge which has been seen in a number of different productions, creates such excitement?

Beecham says: “Miller is able to land on a specific historical moment in time 
and to interrogate and examine it and in doing so release much bigger timeless universal questions about ethics and morals and moral behaviour, and the moral compromises we make as human beings.

“He took the Salem witch hunts as a starting point for The Crucible, but that play examines much bigger questions of justice and morality and ethics that were pertinent to that moment in history.

“Likewise with the Holocaust in this particular piece, Miller is a dramatist who is probing big philosophical questions about the nature of what it means to be a human being and he is able to do that through exploring specific historical moments.

“It’s the mark of a truly great writer to dramatise something very specific that actually speaks in a very universal way.”

Set in 1950s New York, A View From the Bridge is an American classic that tells the story of Eddie Carbone and the obsession with his orphaned niece that spirals out of control.

The story explores, expertly, sexual repression, paranoia and homophobia and 
Miller, a New York Jew, 
was able to mine the intricacies of an Italian immigrant family.

“It’s a hell of a play,” says Stephen Unwin.

“I have known it for 20 years and it is a piece of such incredible power. He writes about the world but he also writes so compellingly about people’s private lives in a 
way I don’t think another writer of the twentieth 
century did.

“For a little while some people thought he was a simple leftie, but I really believe his work will only grow and become even more relevant.”