Theatre Review: East of Berlin (Southwark Playhouse, London)

Jordan McCurrach (left) and  Jo Herbert (right). Photograph: Ori Jones Photography.

Jordan McCurrach (left) and Jo Herbert (right). Photograph: Ori Jones Photography.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Complex, uncomfortable, and daring, this is theatre at its most intense.

Overview

Anything that touches on the horrors of the Holocaust is always in danger of being too purile, shallow, or offsneive. Yet award-winning Canadian playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, has crafted a complex, daring, and unprecedented piece using an imaginative and intelligent slant on the aftermath of  the concentration camps atrocities. There aren’t any shallow shocks or crude politics here, just an unexpected and unnerving look at redemption and the human condition.

Rudi has grown up in Paraguay in a post-war German settlement, never knowing his father’s role in the Nazi effort. When his friend lets slip that his dad was an SS doctor experimenting on people at the camps, Rudi’s world is turned upside down causing him to flee from his family back to Berlin. But will the divided city provide the escape from his father’s past that he’s looking for? And just how fine are the lines between love, guilt, spite, and salvation?

Writing

Moscovitch’s is a formidable writer, having scooped up  many writing awards. Indeed, East of Berlin has toured and been performed internationally on the basis of Moscovitch’s talent. Despite the prickly subject, she approaches the narrative with a huge amount of intelligence and emotional depth. All characters here feel real, but most importantly, realistically flawed. Even as awkwardly ghastly as the play’s subject is, it feels organic and convincing, and not just some bad taste novelty. Moscovitch also knows just when, and how much, dark humour to employ, which not only lightens some of the heavier moments, but is used to explore character and issues with an inviting depth and grace.

In closer details, Moscovitch’s, writing really comes to the fore in her handle of language. Throughout, there are a lot of unfinished sentences and fragmented paragraphs. It feels a little awkward at first, but you soon realise that the metre is all about embodying the small self-censures and internal lies we, and the characters alike, subconsciously make. Suddenly, you start to see the high-intelligence behind the play.

All this, when crescendoing towards the play’s climax, cumulates in an absolutely overwhelming finale of shock and awe: a soul-shaking finish that is seldom pulled off so successfully in theatre.

Production

The production is also top notch with all parts of the team working incredibly well together. Holly Pigott’s set of cluttered archive shelves evoke a strange calm and clinical bleak backdrop for Rudi’s plight. There are also several little surprises hidden in the shelving’s mobility and hidden crannies. Ingeniously, these all slowly move and unravel parallel the gradual deterioration and destruction of Rudi’s life, giving the show a brilliant aesthetic intelligence alongside the writing.

Blythe Stewart’s direction ensures that the text and the action buzzes unceasingly around it. Even monologues have a real sense of drive and drama despite there visually being little to concern yourself with. She makes sure that it’s the characters and their thoughts that drives the pace, as this is where the theatre of the piece truly lies.

Particular note-worthy is Jasmine Robinson’s video design. Projecting directly onto the set’s shelving units, images and moving animations become distorted and broken by the unevenness of the files, boxes, and paraphernalia. These either quietly change the mood of a setting, or serve as surreal illustrations as to what’s going on. Robinson’s videos mimic Moscovitch’s use of fractured language; nothing is whole and everything has fissures which attempt to distort the truth, either aurally or visually.

In short, there’s a sheer amount of thought and subtlety that runs throughout the production. This is not a play that needs resources, pomp, or razzle-dazzle to work, but merely brilliant and ingenious minds that acutely understand the text. Stewart and her team lavish the show with just this, and more.

John McCurrach (left) and  Tom Lincoln (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ori Jones Photography/

John McCurrach (left) and Tom Lincoln (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ori Jones Photography/

Cast

The trio of actors are all excellent. In particular, they manage to always seem to be withholding something that they’re not letting on to their counterparts or the audience, creating a pervasive sense of guilty/traumatic enigma. Even Jo Herbert, as Sara, as bubbly and outgoing as she is, conceals a troubled past and interfering prejudices that makes her almost as couched and distant as Rudi at times. These cumulate in emotionally tactile and visceral performances from these three excellent actors.

Jordan McCurrach as Rudi, however, is particularly masterful, especially in his asides to the audience. He handles the dark humour handed to him by Moscowich with a blunt grace and dexterity perfectly suited to his character. McCurrach both endears and repels us from Rudi in equal measure, without ever making him caricature or overtly neurotic. He gives a quiet yet barnstorming performance of controlled power, revelling in the unsettling comi-tragic awkwardness of the narrative and Rudi himself.

Verdict

Immensely thought-provoking and incredibly intense, Moscovitch’s outstanding writing is supported by a supreme production and extraordinary cast. Uncomfortable and subtly shocking, it’s an extreme yet elating piece of theatre.

East of Berlin plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 6BD, until 12 July 2014. Tickets are £18 (concessions available). To book, visit http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk. 

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