Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Theatre review: East of Berlin

Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch looks at a legacy of the Second World War, the families of Nazi war criminals who fled to South America, in the 1960s-set East of Berlin. Rudi (Jordan McCurrach) grew up in a German ex-pat community in Paraguay, naïvely accepting well into his teens the vague explanation that they had to leave Germany "because they lost." It's only when a classmate makes a crack about science experiments that Rudi realises his father, a dull pharmacist, has a past life as an SS doctor at Auschwitz, who used Jews as human guinea pigs. His disgust and anger at his father lead him to rebel, initially by making sure he gets caught having sex with his gay friend Hermann (Tom Lincoln.) But he really needs to confront his family's dark history, so he assumes the false identity he was originally smuggled out with, and returns to West Berlin.

It's while researching his father's movements that he meets Sarah (Jo Herbert,) a Jewish American whose mother was rescued from the camps. They both find something cathartic in their relationship, but he's not told her the whole truth about who he is.

Taking its inspiration from the archive Rudi and Sarah first meet in, Holly Pigott's design makes creative use of filing shelves, which get moved around to act as doors and beds. And Moscovitch has constructed an interesting story; Rudi protests his love for Sarah is real, but having already slept with a man just to get back at his father inevitably colours how we see his relationship with a Jewish girl.

There's something very cold about Blythe Stewart's production though, that I couldn't quite get on board with. Perhaps it's a deliberate echo of the harsh clinical distance of the SS doctor performing his experiments, but the effect is of something rather flat - there's not a lot of variety in McCurrach's voice, which is a problem as the majority of the story is told through his monologues. Herbert's arrival halfway through brings with it a new energy, but the piece overall kept a bit too much of an emotional distance for me to warm to it myself.

East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch is booking until the 12th of July at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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