By Adam Rafferty
At the outset, prolific Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Berlin presents itself as a cat and mouse story of romance between a travelling Australian and a local Berliner. While romance is certainly a sub-plot in this thoughtful piece, it’s actually a far deeper examination of the politics of social justice that will have you considering your stance on a subject that is almost unanswerable, at least in the sense of providing a satisfying outcome for all the characters involved.
Set in contemporary Berlin in the apartment of Charlotte (Grace Cummings), the story begins mid-conversation as Aussie Tom (Michael Wahr) attempts to seduce the young student. They’ve met earlier that evening at a bar and struck up a conversation where things began to click. Later as she is leaving she sees him looking pitiful on the street outside and cutely offers him somewhere to stay for the night.
But Charlotte is no floozy. She’s a strong German woman who knows her mind and has no intentions of hopping into bed with him – maybe. Certainly there’s electricity between the couple and she understands the art of seduction. The most she’ll offer him up front, beyond a spot on the couch, is good conversation and perhaps the recitation of one of her poems if he charms her sufficiently.
They each make presumptions about the intentions and nature of the other, but it doesn’t take long before the parrying of their conversation leads to the learning that they have a shared trauma in their past. This understanding leads, classically, to a changed viewpoint and suddenly the intent of Tom’s seduction evolves. How they each expect the night together to end takes an abrupt turn.
Delivering a flawless accent and the sense of strength that is innate, culturally, in German women, Cummings’ performance as Charlotte is revelatory. Making her MTC debut in this production, one can only hope we see much more of this stunning young actress. Wahr is a charming performer, having demonstrated such romantic skills as the lead in 2019’s Shakespeare in Love. Perhaps it’s that experience that brings a recitative nature to Tom, especially when he’s in the process of trying to deceive Charlotte. Wahr has to traverse a gamut of emotions both above and below the surface and when deception isn’t so much at play his naturalism comes more to the fore. Direction from Ian Sinclair is almost classical in nature, perhaps too unstill at times to allow his characters to settle into their emotions, but on the whole effective.
Murray-Smith has structured this story as a kind of suspense, slowly revealing the truth behind each character, but ultimately the twists in the tale are signposted through script, direction and performance in a way that becomes unsurprising. Nevertheless, the predictability of the plot is wholly forgivable due to the fact that the subject it brings to the fore is an utterly engaging and fascinating one to explore. The weight of the past on future generations and the measure of justice when it comes late is a theme that isn’t exclusive to the setting of modern Germany. Parallels span the globe right back to our own doorstep. This is juicy stuff that makes Berlin’s 80 minute run-time feel richly packed and thoroughly engrossing.
Image Jeff Busby