Monday, March 09, 2009
Over There at the Royal Court
The Royal Court’s Off the Wall season of plays about Germany continues with Mark Ravenhill’s unsettling Over There.
The play is a strongly allegorical piece about two brothers, identical twins, who grow up on separate sides of the Wall.
Though they live apart - Franz lives with his mother in the West while Karl has remained in the East his socialist father - they are still connected by the filaments of their twin-ness, they can feel each other’s pain, each other’s joy.
When the Wall falls the brothers are reunited and Karl comes to stay with Franz in what was the West.
He is initially excited by this prospect, by this opportunity to binge on things, but he also still clings to his Eastern way of thinking. He can’t marry the two, and a divide remains in his mind.
In a delicious piece of casting, the brothers are played by identical twins Luke and Harry Treadaway, with only a slight difference in hairstyle and different coloured underwear to mark them apart; so when they face each other on stage and joke about it being like looking in a mirror, it is indeed so.
Once they start living together, the relationship between the two brothers quickly starts to deteriorate. Karl finds his new life a struggle and starts to imitate his brother, to wear his (shiny, shiny) suits and to teach Franz’s young son Russian, to blur the line between himself and his twin. Ravenhill uses this device to convey the crisis of a country trying to create a new vision for itself, one of a united future, and the cultural and ideological divisions that remain even after the wall has been torn down.
Co-directed by Ravenhill and Ramin Grey, the production has a pared down aesthetic. Johannes Schutz’s set is a stark white box filled with further boxes: brands haphazardly stacked, a jumble of plastic condiment bottles and serial packets, all labelled with familiar names, the detritus of the West.
This spare way of presenting things extends to the performances, and to the very texture of the piece. The Treadaways, frequently speaking in unison, deliver their dialogue in an oddly detached fashion. That is not to say their delivery is empty of emotion, but what emotion there is feels intentionally askew. There is a flatness to their line readings, sentences end bluntly, rather than trailing off naturally, and when they speak in foreign languages – Franz in English or Karl in Russian – we hear a string of nonsense words instead. This manner of staging, playful, teasing and stripped of the unessential, is reminiscent of the Court’s recent productions of work by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, The Ugly One and The Stone, which began the Off The Wall season.
As the play proceeds, this notion of things being ‘stripped down’ is taking to its logical conclusion and the final scenes see the two men utterly exposed, their skin smeared with food, with sauces and condiments, the contents of tubs and bottles and packets.
There is a pleasing absurdity to some earlier scenes. A yellow sponge stands in for Franz’s son (appropriate since he is not a character, not a person, but a thing, a pawn between them), while a bag of flour temporarily becomes their father’s ashes, and, in a brief prologue set in California, an American waitress is played by Luke in a blonde wig and heels. But this lightness of tone is replaced by something altogether more disquieting in the play’s later moments.
There is something quite repellent about the mess they make, writhing in gunk, skin sticky and slick: it speaks of all manner of fluids spilled and is, at times I found, difficult to watch (literally - I became acutely interested in my shoes at one point). As a metaphor it is not unsuccessful, for the brothers’ relationship is far from tidy, nor is the path of the reunited country free of debris – you can’t stitch a wound that deep overnight. “Your world can’t exist,” Franz tells Karl. “There’s only my world.” And, seeing this, Karl starts to sink, to lose his grip.
Both actors, onstage throughout, throw themselves into demanding roles, and there is an undeniable potency to proceedings. But in the end Ravenhill's approach is too heavy-handed and obvious, it hits its audience over the head, yells in their faces: West eats East. Point made. We get it.
Reviewed for musicOMH.
A double booking error meant that at one point it seemed as if I might have to watch the show sitting on Charles Spencer's lap - but fortuntaley an usher was able to find me a spare speat seconds before the play started.