Joanna Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s most celebrated playwrights and with the support of MTC’s commissioning and developing writers’ program Next Stage, comes the world premiere of her latest work Berlin.
Through the eyes of her own children during a family holiday to the German capital in 2015, Murray-Smith pondered the feelings and implications for the young drawn to a city so rich in history and creativity but also one so profoundly soaked in shame.
Charlotte: Uber hip Berliner, privileged in her parent funded flat, self-aware, liberal thinking. German.
Tom: Upstanding travelling Australian, irreverent, intellectual, charming. Jewish.
Instantly, physically and chemically attracted, in Tom and Charlotte, we have a promise of a brave endeavour to snip at the suture of intergenerational trauma. Ulterior agendas within the plot aside, the capacity for these young people to banter philosophically is the font of their allure and simultaneously their curse. Unified in painful personal loss, if recovery can't be found or indeed encouraged in the aspirations of these young people, where is it to be found at all? Will we ever stop stealing our own innocence by passing down agonising narratives?
These are massive themes, and this work offers us a portal into the extremities of painful dialogue while searching for a way to even start.
As Charlotte, Grace Cummings walks us through this character and absolutely nails it. This is a superbly observed, fully dimensional performance that feels truly lived. In so fully seeing this young woman, empathy feels tilted in her direction and whether or not it should be, remains a conundrum of this work. Charlotte’s advantage feels genuinely hard to determine. Narratively it feels powerful and challenging to have her positioned in this way but equally, considerations of text, performance and direction cannot be overlooked, and, in these areas both the character and the actor felt more fortunate.
As Tom, Michael Wahr is achingly earnest and seriously good. Tom’s journey is in many ways, the more interesting one and objectively, audience empathy feels as though it should be with him, however, afore mentioned factors have impact. Stage blocking is an enormously effective and very deliberate tool in denoting where power sits in a moment and delivering a moral position upstage to another character standing at height with your back to the audience can enormously diminish that position. It was noticeable. There is no doubt that the writer’s intention with this work is to force us to waiver in our determination of where our sympathy should land, but directorial accountability cannot be overlooked here and there were some interesting and occasionally ambiguous choices made.
Early exchanges between the pair lacked some subtlety that jarred against an overall evocation of realism. An overly detailed wordy retelling of their introduction felt laboured and a little contrived in contrast with the works more confronting and powerful moments when the characters and performers truly soared.
The irony of raising any kind of criticism of this work almost speaks to a theme of the piece itself. When are we allowed to be critical and have a view on a contentious issue? In a ‘cancel culture,’ era it feels even less OK to accuse a person of wearing historic trauma on their chest like a badge of honour.
The design team in Christina Smith (Set & Costume) and Niklas Pajanti (Lighting Design) deserve particular kudos for the creation and lighting of Charlotte’s enviable Berlin apartment but in particular for the devasting triumph of the play’s final moments that powerfully stamps an exclamation mark upon the entire work.
From the ease of being tracked down in an age of social surveillance to the views you are destined or expected to hold, Berlin tackles profoundly troubling matters head on with enormous success. Polarising, uplifting, devastating, hopeful and painful, this is an experience of lasting contemplation and genuine value. Joanna Murray-Smith has enjoyed enormous international success and in Berlin, she has created an extraordinary work destined and deserving of many more stages in many more cities.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Director Iain Sinclair
Venue: The Sumner | Southbank Theatre, 140 Southbank Bvd, Southbank VIC
Dates: 17 April — 22 May 2021