Passion, intellectual rigour and the Holocaust collide in Joanna Murray-Smith’s intense, high verbiage, sexually charged drama Berlin. Australian Tom (Michael Wahr) has just landed in the German capital, keen to get to know the real city, not the tourist offering. He’s directed to a small, hole in the wall bar, where he meets and is immediately drawn to local Charlotte (Grace Cummings). At first, she doesn’t play the game and he leaves, but she feels guilty about how she has treated him and invites him back in.
Now it is 1am. The bar is closed and it is just the two of them at her place. The chat becomes far more playful and vigorous. They dance around each other in an attempt to get to know each other better. The spark between them is tangible as they reveal snippets about themselves. She is a student and writer, keen to become a poet. He says he’s into “industrial espionage”.
As Tom tries to get her into bed, they appear to have similar musical tastes and she matches him stride for stride in conversation. They talk about their “favourites” and recent dating history. We learn that her parents separated when she was only seven. Her father is a “hedge fund guy” living in London, while her mother is a “narcissistic sculptor” in Berne. She was six when her four-year-old brother was killed in a tragic accident, after chasing a ball onto the street.
He received a little windfall after he was involved in a fatal car crash. We find out that he is Jewish on his mother’s side and that he decided to visit Germany because his great grandfather used to live there. Then the inevitable happens, but it’s once the deed is done that things change considerably. That happens when she catches him out on his mobile and, thereafter, the truth outs – the ugly past very much brought into the present.
Tragedy, exploitation and morality become the resounding theme. To say any more would be to spoil the surprise and I’m not about to do that. Suffice to indicate that the ending is a ripper. What a magnificent writer Murray-Smith (Bombshells, Pennsylvania Avenue) is! Her storylines and turns of phrase are captivating and exhilarating … and Berlin – inspired by a family trip – is yet another example of that. She remains grounded and “real” at all times.
Wahr and Cummings make a terrific combination. Both give as good as they get. They’re particularly strong at the ritual of seduction, as well as stating their respective positions, in character, when it counts. Set and costume designer Christina Smith has crafted a busy two-tier apartment-style set that is slightly angled to the audience – one to be mighty proud of. Stairs lead to the upstairs loft, which serves as the bedroom, upon which a replica Constable painting takes pride of place on the wall.
The play unfolds in three scenes and it is only in the third that the lighting is bright enough to get a sharp view of the actors. I understand that most of the action takes place in the wee small hours, but still a bit more lighting in acts I and II wouldn’t have gone astray. But that is only a minor gripe compared to my beef about the “thin” sound. I was in the back row at the first night preview and often found it difficult to hear what the actors were saying. And that wasn’t just me. Many around me were vocalising similar thoughts after curtain fall. Fortunately, both these issues can readily be dealt with.
The piece itself has been well conceived and brilliantly constructed and executed. It provides much food for thought and sparks discussion. Directed by Iain Sinclair, Berlin is playing at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner until 22nd May, 2021.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Shakespeare in Love (MTC) – theatre review
- American Song (Red Stitch) – theatre review
- L’Appartement: Chaos in the City of Love (QT) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.