Theatre / Waiting Room Germany - Royal Court, London

`What hits you is the passionate clarity with which these people have been forced to take stock of their lives'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
`It's as if," declares the press officer, "the Japanese had invaded West Germany and announced from tomorrow you are under Japanese law." The "amazing thing", according to the politician's private secretary, is that the population of the DDR "has emigrated without going anywhere". Two of the long line up of speakers in Klaus Pohl's Waiting Room Germany, they are referring to the traumatic effects of reunification. By happy coincidence, Mary Peate's absorbing Royal Court production opened on the fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.

The result of innumerable tape-recorded interviews with real people, Waiting Room is clearly influenced by the work of Anna Deavere Smith whose Fires In the Mirror (on the flare up of animosities between Brooklyn's blacks and Hasidic Jews in the summer of 1991) and whose show about the LA riots were assembled in the same Studs Terkel-like way. The big difference is that Ms Smith impersonates all her interviewees herself, producing the faint but uncomfortable feeling that a community's tragedy has become a solo performer's opportunity for virtuosic display. You have to keep reminding yourself that the one-woman format is supposed to represent a bridging of division.

From car mechanic to ex-mayor, from taxi driver to former member of the Polit- buro, the 20-odd testifiers in Pohl's piece are performed by a group of five skilled actors whose talents direct your attention to the people they are playing rather than to themselves. The metaphor of the waiting room (hauntingly cavernous here, with polythene-sheeted walls and rows of back-to-back chairs) is perhaps a touch too promiscuously applicable. From one point of view, after all, the whole world is a transit lounge. But it's occasionally pulled into tighter focus when you hear, say, that there is an 18-month wait for planning applications to be processed, the whole business horribly complicated on account of the fact that the ownership of much land in the east is being reclaimed by Wessis (west Germans).

It's what people inadvertently betray between the lines rather than what they officially pronounce that more often than not makes a stage monologue dramatic. True, Waiting Room includes such characters as the comically self-satisfied western insurance boss (the excellent Neil Dudgeon) who cannot hear how patronising he is being to the easterners he's been sent to train.

But what hits you is the passionate clarity with which these people have been forced to take stock of their lives as the nation contemplates its identity crisis. There's the female psychiatrist (the fine Maureen Beattie) who defected to the west and has a vituperative contempt for the solidarity levy and what she sees as post-unification scrounging.

Or there's the elderly master painter whose life had been turned by the Cold War into a perverted picaresque of deportings and imprisonings. After 30 years in Australia, he hears of the fall of the Wall and returns home, only to have the banks foreclose on his little business, leaving him back at square one.

Giving you a privileged access to lives such as these, Waiting Room Germany is a fascinating eye-and-ear opener.


n To 18 Nov. Booking: 0171-730 1745