Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Over There or the impossible reconciliation between East and West Germany: our reviews

by Kathryn Hadley

As soon as we took our seats Pinar commented on the staging and decor of the play. ‘Over There first strikes you with its decor. The stage was used to create a big white cube which I thought was successful to emphasize the claustrophobic atmosphere of the time.’ The overwhelming feeling was indeed one of claustrophobia and inescapability: the two characters are trapped in the respective ideologies of the Germany in which they grew up; Germany too remains a product of its history, in which it is still trapped. Derry explains how the two characters, Karl and Franz, are symbols for the history of the two Germanys after reunification, revealing the extent to which Germany is still scarred by its past. I my view Ravenhill’s play was shocking. Although his shock tactics were at times overdone and unnecessary, Ravenhill’s use of symbolism was particularly powerful and effective in conveying both the tragedy of the brothers’ story and of German history. Here are our reviews...

Kathryn: 'from bad to worse'

When the lights were dimmed over the final scene set in California years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was left shell-shocked. Shell-shocked in a similar way that Germany was left shell-shocked and perpetually scarred, both immediately after the Second World War and following the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was shocked by both the explicitness and graphicness of Mark Ravenhill’s latest play and by the issue of an impossible reconciliation between the two Germanys after 1989 which it raised through an extensive use of symbolism.

The play features the twins Luke and Harry Treadway as two twin brothers who are separated following the construction of the Berlin Wall, when their mother flees with Franz to the West leaving Karl with his father in the East. The story is framed by a graphic prologue and epilogue set in the United States in the present, in which Franz is seduced by the waitress in a Californian diner, played by his twin brother. The play ends with the two brothers in bed together.

The audience is also left shell-shocked by the plot as a whole, as it progresses from bad to worse. Things are difficult from the two very first scenes of the play, set at the time of the Berlin Wall. The two brothers are separated by the wall. Franz’s visit to the East Berlin in 1986 is cut short by pressure to reach the checkpoint before it closes and Karl’s sole visit to the West Berlin, in 1988, is only possible because he manages to get a day pass to visit his dying mother, who has sought to cut herself off from all aspects of life in the East and does not even wish to see her son.

The initial euphoria following the fall of the wall is also short-lived as the twins become increasingly aware of their irreconcilable differences, which become a symbol for the wider impossible coexistence of the two Germanys. Initial hopes of freedom and rebirth are merely an illusion: Karl remains trapped in the Soviet communist system of East Germany and soon realises that he does not know who he is and what he wants. Karl’s first solution to his dilemma is to literally become a mirror image of his brother and to live his twin’s life: he wears his suit, learns English, picks his son up from school and spends a day in his office incognito.

However, this solution rapidly proves unworkable. Franz reacts against his brother’s attempts to ‘indoctrinate’ his son with a communist ideology and asserts his desire to be an individual. He claims back his suit and the education of his child and Karl returns to the East where he slumps into depression. Franz’s unsuccessful attempts to ‘clean up’ his brother and to convince him that the communist society of East Germany was ‘a mistake’ provide just a hint at some of the obstacles along the path of reunification. At this point, communication between the twins breaks down as Karl replies to his brother in Russian. When Franz tries to help Karl practise a job interview for a company owned primarily by American share holders, his brother condemns the company as Western, rejecting Franz’s assertions that ‘we’re one’ and that it is neither an east German nor a west German company, but ‘a German company’.

The plot reaches its climax when the brothers take a trip to the countryside to East Germany. Karl pursues his attempts to indoctrinate his twin’s son and the brothers’ subsequent fight to nurture the baby becomes a symbol for the wider struggle to decide which ideological path the new Germany will follow. Coexistence between the brothers is, however, impossible. There cannot be two of them because Karl does not fit in and has nothing of his own to offer. All he can do is take and the only solution is for Franz to kill his brother and to eat him. When Franz asserts ‘two of us? I don’t want two of us. You’re an echo. You’re a shadow’, Karl is forced to admit that the only solution is for his brother to kill him. ‘This is your world. Made in your image. Everything here you understand. I don’t. Everything here you own. I don’t […]. I will take from you. I’ve got nothing and all I can do is take […].’

This disturbing final scene is, however, merely a metaphor for the wider historical issues at stake following German ‘reunification’. In a similar way, the reconciliation of the two Germanys and coexistence will also be impossible. Eastern Germany will inevitably be ‘eaten’ and engulfed by the western consumerist society. Just as the twins only become ‘one’ when Franz eats his brother, Germany will only be one when western Germany has consumed the remains of communist eastern Germany.

Derry: 'a troublesome meal yet to be fully digested'

The cast list for Mark Ravenhill’s Over There could not be more simple. It reads something like this: Harry Treadaway as Franz; Luke Treadaway, Harry’s twin brother, plays Karl (also Franz’s twin brother). The way I see it, however, both Franz and Karl are only lightly disguised symbols for the fortunes of their respective countries after reunification.

Harry plays West Germany. He is flashy, rich and outwardly self-confident, yet his materialism masks an inner dilemma. He yearns for his father figure, who is inaccessible, first because of the Wall, then by death. His embrace of western values and language is tempered by his boredom with his career and his expensive purchases. He scoffs at his brother’s lack of refinement, yet is still curious about life on the opposite side of the wall. At various points in the play, not least while he embarks on a one-night stand with a Californian waitress, the script alludes to his unsettled subconscious and the looming insecurity that haunts his life.

All of these characteristics, I imagine, could arguably be assigned to the ‘victorious’ West Germany at the end of the Cold War. Before this event, West Germany was booming. A modern infrastructure, a sturdy economy and powerful industries beckoned guest workers from around the world and led to its role as the engine of the European economy. But is materialism alone enough to sustain a nation? Was there was still something intangible missing from a nation shorn in two? These are the questions Franz’s character asks of himself and the audience.

The problems of Karl, the twin from the east, are less nuanced but arguably more serious. His entire way of life and hence, his identity, has been challenged by the fall of the Wall. The ideals that both society and his father taught him have proved a categorical and total failure. Furthermore, a commitment to communal living and thinking has rendered his personality incapable of coping with life in the West. He finds the possibilities offered by the capitalist way of life exciting but simultaneously inhibiting. “I can be anything”, he exclaims while standing in the shadows of the toppling wall. But just as soon his face falls and he asks himself, worriedly, “But who am I?”

His initial and short-lived solution to his situation is to gorge himself on the shallow prizes of West German life: pornography and chocolate. His next, equally doomed course of action is to mimic his brother’s ostensibly comfortable existence. His final and pathetic recourse is to revert to chanting the obsolete socialist slogans he has learned by rote as a child. I imagine that all of these personal dilemmas reflect well those felt by liberated but rather lost citizenry of the defunct GDR circa 1989. From their perspective, the task of adjusting economically, culturally and psychologically to the rhythms of Western life must have appeared mammoth.

It’s a task that is yet incomplete. On a recent visit to Bremen, deep in what had been the West, I was shocked by a local’s denouncement of re-unification, and the economic costs dunkel-Deutschland had wrought on its rich twin. Furthermore, any visitor to today’s Berlin can observe at first hand the split personalities of this most schizophrenic of cities: the West boasts international corporate headquarters housed in shining towers of marble and glass while the East can offer only empty power stations now inhabited by communes, techno nightclubs and artists’ collectives. And yet, perversely, it is the latter rather than the former that felt to me more real, more at ease with itself.

It is not for the neon of the Sony Centre that many people my age visit united Germany’s capital, but for the bohemian, free-living and communally-minded ethics on display in the art galleries and summer music parades of the east. It is this contradiction in German history and national character Franz and Harry portray particularly well. Rather like the shockingly cannibalistic finale of Over There, a communist country was swallowed whole by its capitalistic neighbour in 1989. Ravenhill’s play suggests that this troublesome meal is yet to be fully digested.

Over There
March 2nd – March 21st
Royal Court Theatre
Sloane Square
London SW1W 8AS
Telephone: 020 7565 5000

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