Back To Berlin
The Other Room Theatre, Cardiff
We seem to live in an era where the building of barriers between and within nations is being celebrated. Back To Berlin, the latest play in the Spring Fringe season at The Other Room, is a reminder of a different age.
The show is the debut offering from CB4, one of several small local theatre companies which comprises graduates of the drama course at the University of South Wales: Luke Seidel-Haas, Emily Pearce, Alice Rush and Frankie-Rose Taylor. As we file in, they are already on stage, dancing to a soundtrack of Berlin-related songs (Nena's "99 Red Balloons", Bowie's "Heroes", Kraftwerk).
When the show kicks off, the performers and co-devisers make it clear that theirs is a low-budget production: the set comprises dozens of cardboard boxes and the occasional suitcase. They explain that the story they are about to tell is based on the experience of Seidel-Haas's father, a Bavarian physiotherapist who studied in Berlin prior to moving to Britain.
We are in 1989 (before any of the performers were born, as they remind us), with television and radio broadcasts focusing on the fact that the divided city which symbolises the Cold War is in the process of becoming undivided. The Berlin Wall is coming down, and Bernhard feels the need to experience the possible collapse of the Iron Curtain first-hand.
Attempts to book a flight are unsuccessful due to sudden demand for tickets and, just as he is about to give up, an unexpected phone call from the ex-girlfriend with whom he left Germany prompts him to seek an alternative route. Thus, Seidel-Haas, playing his father, finds himself on a long journey by boat and train.
Taylor, Rush and Pearce play the various characters he encounters as he travels eastwards, including an idealistic student and a businessman who argue about the relative benefits of capitalism and communism and an East German housewife returning laden from a shopping trip to the West.
When he finally arrives in Berlin, he is just in time to participate in the celebrations as the wall starts to be dismantled. The next morning's hangover, however, brings to light new unpleasantnesses and uncertainties.
The tone of Back to Berlin is informal, if not improvisatory. There are no big performances—simply the sense of a story being told via rudimentary props and the occasional illustrated mini-lecture. Aside from the demolition of the wall itself (here, the boxes truly come into their own), no huge dramas occur; rather, there are reflective moments, which prompt grunts of recognition from Germans in the capacity audience (including, on the night I attended, Bernhard himself).
The show seems to have been born out of nostalgia for a depressingly brief period of unity and optimism; commodities which seem in short supply thirty years on. It manages to end on an upbeat note, however, courtesy of a Billy Joel-inspired singalong.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its apparently ramshackle nature, Back To Berlin succeeds admirably in its task of bringing to life one of the defining incidents of the 20th century. As hour-long history lessons go, it’s atypically charming.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith