Karl and Franz are twin brothers. One grew up in East Germany and one in the West. Over There looks at what happens to their relationship when the wall comes down and the Soviet Bloc disintegrates.
Being a piece of theatre, Mark Ravenhill’s text avoids just offering a simple, naturalistic tale of two boys. Instead, Over There is a dense, allusive, fluid piece of work. Karl and Franz are at once two brothers, embodiments of East and West Germany and at times almost pure ciphers for Capitalist and Socialist ideology. What is exciting is that these positions are not fixed. There is a sense that both figures on stage continually exist on all three levels, forcing the audience to keep re-reading their relationship with what is being said and done.
Staged in the same white-box-on-stage set as The Stone, Ramin Gray and Mark Ravenhill’s staging is like a hugely playful homage to contemporary German theatre techniques. It’s as if, alongside the putting on the play, they’ve decided to give British audiences a masterclass in how to read German theatre. The elements on stage are already almost clichés of a certain type of German theatre: the obligatory stripping off costumes and changing clothes on stage; the increasingly littered stage; the use of foodstuffs and mess; etc. But here there’s a very deliberate knowingness to the way these elements are deployed – an oddly British precision. Perhaps it’s the shared language and cultural knowledge, but elements that often look random on German stages here frequently look like very exact visual puns and metaphors.
The real card up the production’s sleeve, and the one which I suspect will render this production frighteningly definitive for a long time to come, is the casting of identical twins Harry and Luke Treadaway. Individually, each brother is right up there among Britain’s finest young actors – both capable of electric intensity. Watching them on stage together is something else entirely. They look similar enough for the effect of their both being on stage together to be mildly disconcerting, even before they start speaking, and at one point moving, in unison. The fact they are actually related also adds an extra dimension of playful liveness. There’s a rapport that goes beyond being “performance” which is acknowledged and played with. The brothers exchange wry smiles at what each other is doing, which seem to exist simultaneously in the world of the play and the real world.
The conceit of twins playing East and West Germany is a neat one, but it is perhaps West German Franz’s son, played by a large sponge, that is the real coup here. The analogy is too obvious to need pointing out, but what is surprising is how sympathetic a character the sponge becomes, propped up on surfaces, sometimes wearing a little hat.
In many ways, the play is a theatrical successor to Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and (God help us) Seven Jewish Children, in that it sets up its characters to stand for blocks of land, populations and ideologies and them moves them through history. Its sparse language even echo the cut-off sentences of Drunk Enough... However, unlike those plays, Over There is no a polemic but an exploration. By shifting between registers and through elliptical ambiguity it suggests ideas but doesn’t ram them down our throats.
Overall, thanks to its gloriously messy, seductive staging and intelligent script, Over There manages to present a picture of Germany’s ongoing struggles to reconcile the experiences of one people divided by ideology for half a century.
____________________________________----_____Photo by Simon Annand