Tuesday 10 March 2009

Over There - Royal Court

First draft:

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


Anonymous said...

Yes. I've been amazed that otherwise intelligent reviewers have read the play as arguing that the old DDR was preferable per se - what it argues is that some aspcts of "Ostalgie" are entirely understandable, and that the extent to which the West simply took over the East was deleterious to both individual and collective identities there, rather than anything so crass as "the Stasi were better than Twinkies". To boil so complex a play down to so simple a position... well, it takes some boiling.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but this gentleman seems to want to squabble with you and Ian Shuttleworth


Andrew Haydon said...


Haven't read the reviews yet, as I still want to do my re-writes uncontaminated with irritation.


Thanks for the tip-off. I resent his decision that my response is "knee-jerk". Actually, I thought about it quite a bit before deciding I didn't agree. I think pretty much everything in his final list and wording is very sensible practice, but I'm not convinced that it needs to be put into writing. It's like the signs on the tube saying "don't behave inconsiderately". I wasn't anyway. I didn't need the sign. I just wonder whether - especially in a profession that has survived without one for so long - we suddenly need to formalise good manners and professional conduct. They should be givens anyway, and it's down to editors who they employ, not the IATC.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. The irony is that David Adams is known for the personal axe that he has to grind in his reviews and the way in which he personalizes issues. Perhaps the code should be his "note to self"? I also happen to think that your criticism is a breath of fresh air - always stimulating, candid and up to the mark. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything whatsoever about German staging techniques, or East or West Germany really, but I still really enjoyed it!

I totally agree there was something spine tingling about watching real twins being so...er...saucy...with each other. And the writing was just so great to listen to. Brilliant. I am going to go again.

Anonymous said...

"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."

- I'd just like to emphasize that - to my mind (and I am German) - the play had rather the atmosphere of the early nineties when the fall of the wall was still new and no one (especially in the East) knew how things would become... there was a certain "foggy feeling" in the air at that time. I think it changed now and things are becoming more balanced; everyone is moving on. Well, actually I'd only like to indicate that it's to my mind not right to speak of "present struggles".

The script, the stage design, the directing and the performace was a real pleasure! - though it felt strange to be in London as a German, watching an English piece in English about German issues...