Melbourne Theatre Company continues its understandably COVID-cautious 2021 season with another two-hander that plays out in a modest single set. Directed by Iain Sinclair, who showed how much impact can be achieved with a minimal set in MTC’s 2019 production of A View from the Bridge, Berlin is the latest play by Joanna Murray-Smith. A playwright focused on words rather than theatrical spectacle, she and Sinclair are well matched for this 80-minute drama that asks difficult questions.
Grace Cummings and Michael Wahr in Berlin. Photograph © Jeff Busby
It’s set in the Berlin apartment of local woman Charlotte, who has invited visiting Australian Tom home for the night. The first third of Berlin is a playful flirtation between these 20-somethings that, after a while, starts to drag. They circle around each other, physically and verbally. There’s even a contrived re-enactment of their initial meeting earlier that night, complete with the distinctive theme music from Orson Welles’ film The Third Man, played on Charlotte’s turntable.
There’s just enough intrigue, however, as Murray-Smith drops hints that neither Charlotte nor Tom are entirely candid, and that moral conundrums are lurking. The revelations that they both lost someone dear in car accidents, for example, and their brief exchange about the ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti, found by German archaeologists and long on display in Berlin.
The mood shifts when Tom receives a phone call early the next morning. After briefly talking about running away together, this law-school dropout begins pushing Charlotte on her views. Were the drivers in those accidents entirely innocent? Should art acquired through unfair advantage always be returned? Should Germans eternally remind themselves of their nation’s shameful Nazi past through countless monuments – such as the Stolperstein, or “stumbling blocks” embedded outside former homes of Jews driven or forcibly taken away? Should Jews keep drawing attention to the Holocaust when other genocides continue to be carried out, barely recognised? Ultimately, which generation of Jews and Germans can finally say: the past is the past?
It’s thought-provoking stuff, even uncomfortable at times, as Charlotte expresses some opinions that are perhaps understandable given her lived experience, but perilously close to the Far Right views gaining ground in Germany. However, the earlier that you realise the true reason why Tom has hooked up with Charlotte – and there are numerous hints from the outset – the more their heightening confrontation feels like Berlin is, narratively at least, beating around the bush.
As Charlotte, newcomer Grace Cummings makes a solid MTC debut. While maintaining a fairly convincing German accent throughout, she conveys Charlotte’s emotional, intellectual and sexual confidence, then allows that strength of character to crack under pressure. Michael Wahr, so likeable in the title role of 2019 MTC hit Shakespeare in Love, plays Tom. He deftly shifts between someone who has suddenly fallen in love and manipulative inquisitor.
Christina Smith has created one unchanging set for Berlin: an apartment living area where nearly all the action takes place, and a mezzanine bedroom. A mix of items that Charlotte has probably inherited and smart, contemporary design, the set, handsomely lit by Niklas Pajanti, looks remarkably lived in. From its hidden depths, he and Smith conjure Berlin’s striking, wordless denouement, which takes the play beyond this apartment to countless other untold stories of loss.
Though it sometimes lacks subtlety, this play has hidden and barely revealed depths that intrigue to such an extent it invites a second viewing. Was that comment before or after this happened? Who knew what when? What is my position on that moral conundrum? Some questions we take away from Berlin don’t have easy answers.
Berlin plays at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, Melbourne until 22 May