Review: Over where?

22 March 2016

by Richard Dennis

The fall of the Berlin Wall infamously caused historian Francis Fukuyama to suggest that it marked “the end of history”. Given world events since, it's easy to scoff at the idea. But at the time, it would've been easier to see where Fukuyama was coming from.

That moment marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, a battle of ideologies between the democracy – and, by extension, capitalism – of the US and the socialism of the USSR that had worn on for almost 50 years. As the Wall fell and the rest of the Eastern Soviet Bloc swiftly followed, it appeared that capitalism had won the ultimate battle of ideas, and that was it – the details would be left to the free market to decide.

Mark Ravenhill's Over There is also concerned with the moment when the Berlin Wall fell and East met West, but his conclusions are markedly different to Fukuyama's. Written in 2009 for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, it is far more ambivalent in its view of events before, during and after.

The play is about a pair of identical twins – Franz and Karl – who grow up in Berlin on opposite sides of the Wall. Franz lives in the West with their mother, Karl in the East with their father. In Warwick University Drama Society's production, not only are the actors not identical twins but they are also the opposite sex, with Franz played by Samuel Wightman and Karl played by Bryony Davies*. However, the dissonance is only slight and momentary as the two, wearing identical grey T-shirts and black trousers, match each others movements and speak in tandem, quickly establishing their relationship.

Wightman and Davies' interpretive physicality is direct. Limbs and bodies move spasmodically and purposefully, with rapid changes of pace and style that communicate clearly the characters' intentions. Their vocal performances are also strong, Davies' in particular, who handles Ravenhill's phrasings and rhythms with ease and also injects them with personality. This clarity allows the entire performance to take place on a bare stage in the round with only minimal lighting shifts. It is clear throughout where the characters are and what they are doing, even though there are only their words and gestures to go by.

Where they are at the beginning of the play is in East Berlin, with Franz using day passes to visit Karl from the West. The difficulty of moving in the opposite direction means that Karl is unable to see their mother and their staunchly socialist father refuses to see Franz, so the two build a relationship together. Once the Wall collapses, Karl moves in with Franz and the play shifts from a tale of detached filial love to barefaced political allegory.

At first the two get on well together. They celebrate their united life, have amicable discussions about their political backgrounds and make plans for the future. Karl wears Franz's suit on a night out and is told he can keep it – the suit being the most obvious symbol of the capitalist businessman. This is the level that Ravenhill's script operates at.

As the play progresses, the twin's relationship breaks down. Karl can't leave his socialist habits behind, whether it's speaking Russian or his attitudes to work, while Franz is unrelenting in his belief that Karl should embrace his new life in the West, and refuses to be magnanimous about capitalism's victory over socialism. The tension between the two of them comes to a head in their interactions with Franz's son. Karl makes it his mission to give the boy an education in Soviet socialism, which increasingly angers Franz, and the final confrontation between the two can be seen coming from a long way off.

By this point, Ravenhill has abandoned all pretensions in his allegory and is pretty much explicit in his view that Franz is capitalism and Karl is socialism, the moral of the story being that capitalism destroys socialism and then consumes it. It's a fine point to make, but it all feels just a little bit too on the nose, and also demonstrates at times a quite strange sense of nostalgia for the good old days of the GDR and the Stasi. That said, there are some nice implications that are left to the audience to decide for themselves; once the political allegory was made clear, I had a nice time imagining Franz's child to be neoliberalism and fantasised about a sequel in which an adult version of him is murdered by Karl's bastard love child – social democracy.

History didn't end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and free market capitalism still hasn't outright won the battle of ideologies (at least I hope it hasn't). So it's easy to see why WUDS were attracted to this play, and their understanding of its message is clear. Their decisions are deliberate, and in its stripped back staging, director Josie Davies has shown deserved confidence in Wightman and Davies' ability to carry the show. It's just Ravenhill's slightly overwrought allegory about a significant and complex point in history that feels a little half-baked.

*This does complicate the decision of which personal pronoun to use when referring to Karl as a character. I've stuck with “he” for supposed reasons of clarity.

Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca