THEATRE: When East meets West

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Indy Lifestyle Online
October 3 1995 marked the fifth anniversary of the Day of German Unity. It was also, by happy chance, the launch date for a project called "New German Voices: Plays from a Changing Germany" at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs. Part of an exchange programme with the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, this week-long series of readings in English gave audiences here the chance to gauge how the art of Germany's younger dramatists is responding to the social problems in their country since "the change". In Klaus Pohl's Waiting Room Germany - an Anna Deveare Smith-inspired sequence of monologues derived from interviews - one of the speakers says that the people of the DDR feel that "they've emigrated without going anywhere". A sense of displacement is complicated by guilt and recrimination because, as this play makes clear, since the Wall fell, Germany is also in the peculiar position of having to confront the ghosts of two totalitarian pasts.

Three years ago, the Theatre Upstairs mounted the English premiere of Klaus Pohl's Karate Billy Comes Home. It dealt with the return to an East German village of a local sporting hero, who, under suspicion of planning to defect, had been thrown into a mental institution for 13 years. Showing how Billy's determination to find out who traduced him uncovers a partly odious, partly pathetic web of Stasi-controlled informers, it was one of the first post-1989 plays to explore the difficulties of a process mountingly crucial to Germany but for which there is no equivalent noun in English: Vergangenheitsbewaltigung or getting the upper hand over the past.

The legacy of the past and its liabilities proved to be an abiding theme in the new works on display at the Court. In Stranger's House by Dea Loher, a secret act of betrayal catches up with an elderly Balkan immigrant when a young Macedonian draft-dodger lands on his doorstep like some distorted image of his younger self. In The Table Laid, Anna Langhoff's play set in the kitchen of a hostel for refugees, atavistic animosities put a heavy strain on communal living, so much so that one character can say the inmates are virtually doing the neo-Nazis' job for them. The final image of D Rust's Comfort and Misery of the Last Germans is of a monster-machine, implacably churning out paper and questions, whose ability to remember is none the less described as "human" in pointed contrast to the memory of the human beings.

The Saturday discussion threw up many interesting points. Michael Eberth, dramaturg of the Deutsches Theater, drew attention to the fact that plays which bring up the moral issues of the Communist past tend to be written by West German dramatists and to strike East German audiences as presumptuous and inaccurate. Karate Billy, a big success in the West, did not prosper in the East. He also revealed that the Deutsches Theater turned down Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, which was a huge hit globally, on the grounds that its sensational treatment of the post-totalitarian predicament in Chile trivialised an experience Germans had also gone through.

There was some quibbling about the limitations of the format of "New German Voices". Rehearsed readings, by their very nature, have to exclude non-text-based theatre and so could never act as a shop window for a piece like Christoph Marthaler's Murx den Europaer! Murx ihn! (seen at LIFT) - a weird vision of paralysis, dispossession and non-communication which many present thought was the most important recent work to have emerged from Germany.

Lastly, is this sort exercise, as someone insinuated, less a feasibility study for full staging than a conscience-salving substitute for it? It will come as a blow to the cynics to learn that a full production of Klaus Pohl's Wartesaal Deutschland can be seen on the Court's main stage in a 10-day run starting 9 November, the sixth anniversary of the day the Berlin Wall started to topple.

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