Playing the Wall game

Ella Hickson’s new play is a clever—and technically inventive—portrayal of East Germany in the 1960s

Theatre
A blend of Hitchcock and Stasiland: Phoebe Fox in “Anna” (©Johan Persson)

East Germany is having a bit of a moment these days:  a Proustian frisson for me, having spent a lot of my student and early journalistic life behind the Wall. Its geopolitical jeopardy is evoked in a deathly caper in Channel 4’s Deutschland 83 and 86, featuring Martin Rauch, a smart East German agent in trouble on either side of the iron curtain. Now, in Ella Hickson’s Anna at the Dorfman (National Theatre studio), we’re pitched back to 1968, the mid-period of the “alternative Germany” in a taut, inventive thriller which blends Hitchcock and Stasiland.

Hickson is a dramatist who has grabbed attention (and young audiences) with work weaving small-scale personal stories into the grand flow of world events and ideologies. Oil covered a century and a half of the impact of the discovery of oil as one of the driving forces of modern capitalism, and The Writer brilliantly deployed the comic device of a new plastic-wrapped sofa as havoc-causer between a hipster couple divided about caving to the domestic order.

It’s refreshing to see a new-generation talent range a bit further than the patriarchy-and-capitalism set menu and, in Anna, Hickson has chosen a time when the Berlin Wall is up and not coming down again for decades—or ever, as far as the cast gathered for a celebration of a factory promotion are concerned.  The Prague Spring is about to be quashed, the chic Maoists of the Left Bank are about to have their noisy moment in Paris. But one of the oddities of East Germany was that it was both connected to Western Europe, by dint of language and partial access to Western television denied to other satellite states, and yet more obviously cut-off than any other by a fortified border and efficiently repressive system.

Hans (Paul Bazely) and Anna Weber (Phoebe Fox) are gathered in their nicely-designed Plattenbau flat in East Berlin, part of the rising generation of the German Democratic Republic doing pretty well from the system. Her foxy red dress  is from the Exquisit label (the one and only provider of modest luxury). He has been promoted to be the new “head of section” and is, of course, a Party member. It’s the time of which Christa Wolf writes in The Quest for Christa T when an alternative to Western Germany still appears possible, not least because many doubters have headed West before the Wall went up in 1961 and the launch of Sputnik seems to put Soviet technology ahead of America. “The new world, it was really there—and not just in our heads.”

The evening takes a frosty turn when an elderly neighbour, Elena, apparently nursing a grudge about her “disappeared” husband losing his senior role at the factory is part of a political clear-out that has benefited her hosts. Revelations follow thick and fast, declared and hidden loyalties collide as alcohol dilutes the formalities.

All of this we observe through headphones—“binaural” sound in the tech-jargon, via which the dialogue and effects appear to travel through our heads in an unsettling way. That experience makes the play, at just over an hour, feel far longer in intensity: we watch the action in the flat as     voyeurs, screened off by a glass partition.

Technically, this is top-notch by the brothers Max and Ben Ringham, who have created enticing sound designs for Betrayal and Tartuffe this season. Everything is experienced aurally from Anna’s point of view: conversations fade in and out of earshot as they would at a messy party (and this one gets quite spectacularly messy).

When Christian (Max Bennett), Hans’s boss, arrives, Anna is reminded of a childhood friend who betrayed her when the Russians swept into Berlin in 1945 and a wave of rapes and crimes of retribution was visited on the defeated Germans. It’s a reminder than in terms of the German century, the Swinging Sixties are not so far away at all from the horror of the Trummerzeit—the era of rubble from which the enforced state socialism of East Germany emerged. Even its national anthem is entitled “Arisen from Ruins” and in this world of cracked mirrors and time-shifted loyalties, the truth, when it finally emerges, is genuinely surprising.

Hickson says of the production that you can “hear communism” in it. That is not quite true—the vernacular is always more contemporary British than 1960s (not least because the spoken language of the GDR at the time was heavily influenced by its Soviet masters, which is hard to re-create without parody). But you can hear the fear that is the concomitant of state socialism enforced by a security-obsessed state, with mere humans as the victims—and the perpetrators.

Economic stress at a different time and place is the subject of Sweat, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning take on the woes of the American working class, at London’s Gielgud for a limited run to late July. Nottage is living proof that you can make riveting drama out of the tension between capital and labour. Her cast of workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, meets in a ramshackle bar against a set of rusting girders to hash out disaffections and a bitter divide over whether to accept cuts in wages to keep their local steel tubing plant going.

The themes are awfully familiar—rage against the Nafta trade agreement, tensions and a sense of lost hope for the American working class. But to her credit Nottage, an African-American dramatist who had previously written about the lives of low-paid seamstresses, clocked all of this before her peers in American liberal theatreworld woke up to the political Krakatoa of Donald Trump.

Martha Plimpton is Tracey, who hails from a family of craftsmen and can imagine nothing worse than getting up in the morning “and having nowhere to go” as unemployment looms. Clare Perkins plays her friend Cynthia, who is black and gets the management job on the understanding of a deal that save the workforce but lowers their living standards and status. That rift unleashes racial disharmony—and ultimately an act of violence (as with Anna, this is a spoiler-free review).

Between the imperious delusions of Marxism-Leninism and the drumbeat of Trumpism in America’s heartlands, these two classy plays cover the ideological waterfront with verve and skill.