Friday 6th March 2020 at York Theatre Royal.
Alone in Berlin comes to the stage as Alistair Beaton’s translation and adaptation of Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone. Set in wartime Berlin as the Gestapo roam the streets with menace, the story is one which builds on details of the life and death of a real couple who create postcards of objection to the regime – a small but perilous act of resistance from powerless civilians who know deep down that they too had a hand in what is now getting out of hand.
Directed by James Dacre, this production is heavily reliant on and indebted to the combined efforts of Jonathan Fensom’s superb set design, Nina Dunn’s video designs, Charles Balfour’s dynamic lighting and most of all – Jason Lutes’ bold illustrations which are projected onto the set. All of those influences give the piece a pervading sense of threat and enclosure within strong, arresting visuals – elements so impressive that at times they unfortunately outshine the scenes playing out in the foreground. If there’s one thing which impresses overall and has a lasting impact in this production, it’s the arresting visual transitions and expressive stage design which shifts place and tone so brilliantly.
Surrounded on all sides by an increasingly dangerous regime, Otto and Anna Quangel (Denis Conway, Charlotte Emmerson) fight to keep their sense of what is good, right and just afloat. Conway and Emmerson show us in certain terms the way their situation puts strain on everything from their sense of identity and their marriage to their relationships with those beyond the closed and carefully locked door. There’s also a little highlighting of the lot of the woman within the policies in place and Emmerson does well to make plain that Anna is not the adoring stereotypical wife to this husband who is given some dark moments of self-serving indecision in the hands of Conway.
Inspector Escherich (Joseph Marcell) is tasked with finding the culprits of the insubordination-via-postcards and in Marcell we find a representative of the blindly indifferent self-server. Not so much callous as cruelly businesslike, he’s a character we are invited to study as a glimpse of an implied majority – those covering eyes and ears, going along as necessary until the trauma touches their life directly. Providing the polar and expected presence of evil is Jay Taylor’s SS Officer Prall who brings some depth to the darker elements of this story, laying out for us the ambition, depravity and relish of Nazi egotists in grim detail, particularly hitting hard in Act 2 when the action makes its way towards inevitable tragedy. Trudi Baumann (Abiola Ogunbiyi) meanwhile, provides an insight into the psyche of the young and the resilient within this climate. Ogunbiyi gives Baumann a spirited perseverance and maps out for us the evolving attitudes and circumstances of the young and the restless.
Klaus Borkhausen (Julius D’Silva) and Benno Kluge (Clive Mendus) offer a different angle for contemplating how the Nazi atrocities took hold as everyday Berliners carried in with their day to day. This pair are a duo of opportunists with a warped sense of privilege and righteousness. They offer some mild comedy in a kind of predictable depiction of poor intelligence but more importantly they function to show us the harsh realities of trusting no one, least of all someone who shares so many similarities with you. Dabbling in criminal activity under the guise of supporting a vague figure they feel economically grateful to, they certainly cry out for parallels to be drawn with news reports of today; Brexit-related hate crime, impulsive looting from the disenfranchised and possessive attitudes towards limited resources – it’s not unfamiliar and therefore suitably disquieting.
Jessica Walker is tasked with the heavy duty of narrating the whole story through song as Golden Elsie, an omniscient being who guides us through the internal and external workings of these characters. That narration is through classical music and song (Orlando Gough composes original songs with lyrics by Beaton) which is an interesting choice here and achieves patchy success. Those lyrics are often full of resonance with snatches of wry humour and the odd damning declaration but at times they’re also overpowering and feel like unnecessary intrusions – particularly when Gough’s music is at its most simplistic and the pitch at a point which feels strained. There are times when the songs land big ideas and frame significant moments with great weight but by the same token they have the power to undermine moments which could have easily fended for themselves.
Alone in Berlin takes us through familiar history on personal terms. With the couple as focal point, the story provides a study of a cross-section of imagined Berliners; a variety of values and walks of life are presented here and each of the characters we meet invite reflection. The story and the production do not allow for passive observation but ask us repeatedly that all important question: what would we have done and more so, can we ever really know for sure what we might have done in a time defined by such a traumatic state of distrust, violence and atrocity? Above all else, this is an engaging study of human nature in the face of danger and discord.
Alone in Berlin is a York Theatre Royal and Royal Derngate, Northampton co-production in association with Oxford Playhouse. It plays York Theatre Royal until March 21st 2020 and you can find tickets here.