In an article published shortly after her death in 2011, Christa Wolf was described as “a German writer of rare purity and sensitivity who grew up under Nazism and became an adult under communism”, whose work “records the impact of these ideologies on individual lives.”

In 1963, Wolf’s first full-length novel, They Divided The Sky, was published. Its events are set in 1960 and 1961. In the years leading up to that time, around 3.5 million people (20% of the East German population) had defected from the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) in pursuit of a better life in the capitalist West Germany. That mass exodus was the catalyst for the construction of the Berlin Wall, which would go on to divide East and West Germany – physically and politically – for 28 years.

They Divided The Sky-1776-by-Patrick-Boland

Stephen Phillips in They Divided The Sky (Photo by Patrick Boland)

Adapted and directed by Daniel Schlusser, They Divided The Sky has arrived on stage in Sydney as part of Belvoir’s inaugural 25A season, a new program dedicated to presenting the work of independent and emerging artists. The two-hander tells the story of an inquisitive young woman, Rita (Nikki Shiels), who falls in love with a slightly older, doctrinaire chemical engineer, Manfred (Stephen Phillips) against the backdrop of a volatile political climate that continues to divide. The pair meet while Rita recovers from an accident at the factory at which she works. Rita and Manfred are living in the new, socialist East Germany.

As romance blossoms and the two begin to understand each other more deeply (including their romanticist ideas), it ultimately becomes clear that the physical barrier between East and West Germany will not only literally silo the residents of each country, but will also stifle the progress of Rita’s and Manfred’s relationship. It will mean that Rita will come to make a choice between socialism and a new life with Manfred in West Germany.

The 75-minute play is told from Rita’s perspective and, instead of a linear narrative, presents a series of the couple’s key interactions that she remembers. Shiels and Phillips deliver excellent performances, serving up characters who engage us successfully in their story. Their interactions feel organic and their dialogue believable. Schlusser has ensured the text and the character interactions remain front and centre. With a bare minimum in terms of set pieces, it brings us into the world of almost six decades ago, offering relevant contemporary insights into the ability of fundamental differences in political ideologies to separate two otherwise compatible human beings.

They Divided The Sky-1952-by-Patrick-Boland

Stephen Phillips and Nikki Shiels in They Divided The Sky (Photo by Patrick Boland)

James Paul’s soundscape wonderfully underscores the events on stage, patently crafted with care. Similarly, Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting choices enhance the piece’s overall impact, while Mel Page’s costumes evoke a real sense of time and place.

Daniel Schlusser Ensemble’s They Divided The Sky is an absorbing experience that prompts us to ponder whether the kinds of barriers we all encounter are truly insurmountable. If not insurmountable, at what height can they be overcome?


Dates: Playing now until 30 June, 2018
Times: Tues-Wed 6.45pm; Thurs-Sat 8.15pm
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills)
75 minutes approx
Prices: All tickets $25 plus booking fee; Previews $20
Bookings: or 02 9699 3444