Controversial at the time it was initially published in 1963, They Divided The Sky was the first full-length novel penned by German writer Christa Wolf. Set at the beginning of that decade, when the construction of the Berlin Wall was underway to separate East and West Germany, it tells the story of a couple, Rita and Manfred, and their struggle with love and idealism in a tense political climate.
For a limited season commencing Wednesday, a stage adaptation of They Divided The Sky will play Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre as part of its inaugural 25A season. A new initiative devoted to providing support to emerging artists, 25A will comprise a host of independent shows over the coming months, brought to the stage by exciting up-and-coming talent. It will all unfold within the walls of the cosy theatre that has housed the early work of acclaimed Australian artists including actor and playwright Kate Mulvany; Griffin Theatre Company’s artistic director, Lee Lewis; and the Sydney Theatre Company’s current resident director, Imara Savage.
They Divided The Sky arrives at Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre courtesy of renowned Melbourne theatre collective Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, a group of artists who create works for theatre, opera, visual art and other media, and explore themes such as power, reality and ritual. While the group was founded in 2007, They Divided The Sky is DSE’s first work to premiere in Sydney.
Actor Nikki Shiels is no stranger to the stage at Belvoir, having appeared in Twelfth Night in 2016, The Rover in 2017, and the just-completed world premiere season of Alana Valentine’s wonderful new work The Sugar House. Shiels is a part of the core ensemble of Daniel Schlusser Ensemble and will play the role of Rita in They Divided The Sky.
“This was a project that came up quickly for us, from first inspiration to production, and that’s been a very special thing,” Shiels tells Theatre People. “It feels a bit blessed.”
She talks about what it is that she believes makes this story of a divided Germany more than five decades ago a great work to bring to the stage in Sydney in 2018.
“We’re looking at the way history informs the present, and that’s a theme that is very close to us as Australians right now.” Shiels says. “And I don’t think there’s another way that theatre can explore these big ideas without focussing on individual stories.”
Asked to pinpoint what she likes most about the stage adaptation of They Divided The Sky, Shiels says it’s not knowing what the adaptation is.
“The way that Daniel works is partly to author the work as we go, and that’s exciting,” she says, “sometimes terrifying, but mostly exciting.
“It’s not a straight-forward narrative; it’s told in the way that we remember things. It’s a kind of memory play, the way we look back on, and sometimes distort, the truth in our recollection.”
So, what does Shiels anticipate will be the most challenging aspect of this work for her as a performer?
“It’s a very emotional story, and it draws on your own personal emotional history,” she says. “Everyone has broken relationships, and scars, and that’s what we’ll be putting ourselves through every night!”
Shiels looks forward to having the opportunity to be part of Belvoir’s inaugural 25A season.
“25A is a great program and there’s a bunch of really exciting young artists being given an opportunity,” she says. “For us, it’s very exciting; it’s a chance for the Ensemble to make its Sydney debut. Personally, as a theatre-maker, I really savour these projects, where I get to work in a collaborative way, to stretch myself as a theatre-maker as well as an actor.”
THEY DIVIDED THE SKY – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: 13 – 30 June, 2018
Times: Previews 8.15pm; Tues-Wed 6.45pm; Thurs-Sat 8.15pm
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills)
Duration: 75 minutes approx
Prices: All tickets $25 plus booking fee; Previews $20
Bookings: belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444