THEATRE / The wall game: Paul Taylor on Phoenix, a drama of German reunification at the Bush

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The Independent Culture
SOME stage-plays have the power to rise above an audience's sneaking suspicion that they'd be better suited to another medium. Though it's an original theatre piece, Sharman Macdonald's Shades, for example, which opened last week at the Albery, has the feel throughout of being a sensitive dramatisation of a still better short story. Yet it works well even on those terms. Likewise, the nagging thought that its energies would be best released in a film for television does not stop you from recognising that Roy MacGregor's Phoenix, premiered now at the Bush, is one of the most potent and thought-provoking plays to have resulted from the fall of the Berlin Wall.

MacGregor focuses on Bruno (Nick Dunning), a political correspondent in Berlin. On the night the Wall is breached, he forsakes the celebrations and heads straight for rural East Germany and his sometime love Renata (Nicola Redmond), a woman still wanted in the West for a car bombing incident which took the lives of an arms dealer and his 12-year-old daughter. There's more self-interest than altruism in the deal Bruno offers. He will arrange for her a secret Berlin reunion with Frankie, her derelict American jazz-trumpeter father, if she will agree to keep quiet about his own part in her terrorist activities.

What follows is a gripping, pacy and morally even-handed drama about the unresolved tensions in a reunited Germany and, as the title implies, about the several kinds of resurgence and regeneration the story includes. The symbol of the phoenix is alluded to at many points in the play but never in a contrived or over-insistent manner. Frankie (Trevor Ray) was known as Frankie 'the Phoenix' Peterson because that was the name of his 'lousy home town' and not, as local legend had it, because he emerged from the rubble of the American bombing raids on Hamburg like an angel blowing his horn. None the less, the error invites you to see the resurrection of a united Germany against the perspective of Germany's earlier rising from the ashes of World War II, while the play's final image hints at the worrying resurgence of Nazism.

The most interesting character is Bruno, whom Dunning gives a compelling shiftiness and moral unease. It takes a bit of believing that such a man, an ex-radical and hanger-on of a Baader-Meinhof- like gang, could have wound up married to a diplomat's daughter and with a plum newspaper job. It seems they went in for neither arranged marriages nor up-to-date police records in West Germany. But the pragmatic pliability that has landed him in this position is excellently spotlit by his wily diplomat father-in-law (Patrick Godfrey) during one of their confrontations.

Bruno hates him, he declares, because he sees himself, reflected as in an unflattering mirror, in the tough, old survivor. The play, however, traces a painful and unexpected change. Bringing Renata to the West, though designed as a cynical ploy to secure her silence, has the ironic effect of stirring genuine concern in Bruno and of awakening, for the first time, real (as opposed to merely fashionable) socialist sentiments, just as they are being declared officially out of style.

The play does not claim such a degree of regeneration for Renata, but rather shows, in Redmond's fine performance, a woman who killed some vital part of herself when she killed the young girl, which is punishment of a kind. 'It wasn't my child who died,' remarks her father during one of his bids to make her show compunction. 'Wasn't it?' comes the bleak reply.

In between the scenes, Dominic Dromgoole's beautifully acted production flashes up slides of Berlin at various stages in its history. Certain images in the writing, though - the bloody, smashed-up car, a symbol of the reckless haste to go West, that Bruno passes as he drives through the GDR and several times remembers - cry out to be handled televisually. Meanwhile, this stage version will do very nicely.

Continues at the Bush Theatre until 22 August (081-743 3388)

(Photograph omitted)

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