This is the sort of independent theatre that we need. A tight one-hander telling a poignant story in an intimate, largely restrained fashion and yet with a keen awareness of the theatrical. Presenting to us a rare story of the Second World War from the German perspective, it brings captivating subject mater to life via a strong script and a bold performance.
A Woman in Berlin is a dramatisation of an anonymous recounting of a civilian woman’s plight amid the backdrop of the Russian approach, occupation and withdrawal from the German capital in the waning days of WWII. For anyone who saw Belvoir’s production of The Pianist in January, this play serves as a fascinating counterpoint, as both are survival stories about terrified, starving individuals living in occupied cities at the end of the war. Yet in most other significant respects they are opposites. While The Pianist dealt with a male Polish Jew hiding out to avoid the occupying Germans whilst awaiting salvation from Soviet forces, this play presents a gentile German woman surrounded by fellow civilians (and yet in many ways feels just as alone), for whom the Russians are the occupying force and the perpetrators of countless traumatic violations against the populace.
This is a powerful, at times harrowing play that presents frank portrayals of the depredations Russian soldiers heaped upon these undefended womenfolk of Berlin, and the evolving state of mind as the narrator lives through ever-worsening hardships. She must conceive of new ways to endure, only to find that the when the conquerors leave and their own menfolk return, it is far from a straightforward reunion.
Although the play deals with the many traumas of an occupied people, there can be no beating around the bush that one of the primary issues is, perhaps unsurprisingly, rape. Even when presented somewhat abstractly by a single performer, it is a visceral and highly disturbing portrayal both in words and action, and the character’s many defilements are dramatised in a variety of unsettling ways. Perhaps most challenging is the fact that – in part due to the character’s ability to passably understand the Russian language – she finds herself involuntarily humanising her rapists while her neighbours subjected to the same horrors are more able to view them as inhuman foreigners. This, and her eventual self-debasing strategies of survival lead to an often challengingly ambivalent portrayal of this often shamefully avoided topic, the systematic rape of an occupied populace during wartime.
Furthering the material’s engrossing content is the fact that our protagonist is German. While she seems to be no fervent Nazi, the character openly states at one point that she does not really remember if she was “for or against”. Although some may view this as a cop-out, it is nevertheless fascinating to see the events from this perspective. While a Western-centric viewpoint may retroactively look at the briefly-allied Soviets as “bad guys” as unthinkingly as we often do of the Germans, this play is not the type of material which tars anyone with simple brushes. Indeed, the murky, inescapable humanity of this story makes it all the more disquieting.
Adapted for the stage by this production’s director Janice Muller and its star Meredith Penman, A Woman in Berlin is a class act almost from start to finish. The source material has been beautifully tailored for the theatrical medium, and the collaboration between co-adaptors has evidently been a fruitful one. Muller’s confident direction is impressive, using a variety of simple lighting effects and staging techniques to create a range of different methods of representation without ever seeming to be using too showy a bag of tricks.
Well, with a single exception. There was one moment where our narrator is overwhelmed by the horrors of occupied Berlin and has something of a paroxysm. This was dramatised with a background piece of discordant music building to an outburst of excoriating German punk rock (Rammstein, I think) while the character spasms wildly under deep red lighting. Even apart from the anachronism of the song it was such a clumsily incongruous bit of cheap theatrics, like the work of a uni student trying to ape their first experience of a Kosky production, that I was left dumbfounded by its inclusion in this otherwise very skillfully directed show. Fortunately it was only a brief (if spectacular) aberration in this excellent piece of work.
The performance by Penman was even closer to being flawless. Although perhaps faintly stagey to begin with, her portrayal of this beleaguered woman rapidly flowered into an utterly compelling and wholly convincing portrait. Taking on a character whose journey is deeply painful but also experiences complex responses to these horrors is no small feat, and Penman does so in an assured manner that elicits nothing short of the audience’s total engagement. One tries to avoid using the cliché, but by the play’s conclusion she had most certainly delivered a genuine tour de force.
Not for the faint of heart but richly rewarding, A Woman in Berlin is a theatrical achievement of disarming power.
Splinter Theatre Co. in association with the Tamarama Rock Surfers presents
A WOMAN IN BERLIN
Director Janice Muller
Venue: The TRS Old Fitzroy Theatre | Cnr Cathedral and Dowling Sts, Woolloomooloo
Dates: 25 August - 5 September, 2009
Times: Tuesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm and Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Adult $29, Concession $21; Beer, Laksa and Show $35
Bookings: www.rocksurfers.org, Moshtix 1300 438 849 or at Box Office 75 mins before the show.