Andrew Liddle, Features Writer

Alone In Berlin In York

The ironies of life, its bizarre coincidences, habituations and twists of fate never cease to amaze. Dreadful things seem destined to happen, the whirligig of time bringing in its revenges and spreading paranoia.

Denis Conway, Charlotte Emmerson & Joseph Marcell. Photo by Geraint Lewis
Denis Conway, Charlotte Emmerson & Joseph Marcell. Photo by Geraint Lewis
Last night a palpable pall seemed to hang over York Theatre Royal even before the doleful play began. Based on true events, Hans Fallada’s Alone In Berlin is a harrowing novel, its subject matter necessarily dispiriting, with no ray of hope other than the indestructibility of the human spirit. Portraying attempts at its systematic destruction has a predictably lowering effect.

But as we speak, the world may once again stand on the brink of apocalypse - who knows? – and many of the things that happened in Nazi Germany, like the loss of free speech and thought control, are clearly already with us, in one degree or another. There were many lines in Alistair Beaton’s translation and splendid adaptation of the modern German classic, directed imaginatively by James Dacre, that struck home, sounded very much like they applied to the here and now.

Denis Conway, Charlotte Emmerson. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Denis Conway, Charlotte Emmerson. Photo by Manuel Harlan
This is a play that obsesses, commendably, over conscience, moral ambiguities, correctness and wrongness, in a way that Ibsen would have understood and approved. Having lost their son in battle and their faith in the regime, Otto Quangel (Denis Conway) and his wife, Anna (Charlotte Emerson), two small insignificant people, decide to take a stand. Inspired by his wife’s indomitable courage, Otto, a carpenter – like a rather more famous opponent of war and hatred - decides to place anarchic postcards in various buildings around Berlin. It’s a small protest but he hopes to inspire others to do the same and the opposition to snowball. These days he’d simply tweet but in 1940s’ Berlin he has to physically pound the streets with all the attendant dangers.

Joseph Marcell, Clive Mendus, Jessica Walker. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Joseph Marcell, Clive Mendus, Jessica Walker. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Joseph Marcell gives a powerful performance as Inspector Escherich, a detective of the old school, a survivor from the civilised Weimar days, someone who very much puts me in mind of Philip Kerr’s enduring hero, Bernie Gunther, the German cop with a conscience. He tries to catch them by patience and procedure, rather than by the indiscriminate brutality advocated by the sleek, well-groomed, ruthlessly ambitious SS Officer Prall (Jay Taylor), who favours torturing the innocent recipients of the cards.

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Inevitably they will be caught, affording us the opportunity to test our hypothesis that the detective may never really have wanted to catch them at all. Maybe it is in the late coming together of the two men who had played cat and mouse with each other for three years that we find the greatest intensity and interest, as moral consciences are stripped bare and elemental man is all that is left. The futility of everything is made plain.

Benno Kluge (Clive Mendus) and Klaus Borkhausen (Julius D’Silva) are choice representatives of the Jew-hating, Jew-baiting class that are thriving on the corruption of the times, profiting from other’s misfortunes and their own total lack of scruples, informing on others and contributing nothing to humanity. Trudie Baumann (Abiola Ogunbiyi) is the young idealist who helps a Jewish neighbour and will suffer the consequences.

Watching over everything is Golden Elsie (Jessica Walker), the statuesque ironic narrator who sings in a shrill mezzo. Dressed like one of those androgynous types that Christopher Isherwood encountered in decadent Berlin nightclubs, she sees it all with an ironic eye, passing mordant parlando asides and occasionally breaking into Lied parody. As human tropes go, this is a clever one.

Throughout, discordant music sets our nerves on edge, pounded on two pianos by members of the cast not otherwise engaged. For the most part, it’s howling atonal stuff, Schoenberg transcribed by Scriabin, stripped down to incoherent chords and seemingly random notes – all, in fact, disconcertingly yet skilfully contrived by composer Orlando Gough.

This is a big production in every sense, a real heavyweight not to be missed.

Alone In Berlin, a Royal Derngate, Northampton, and York Theatre Royal co-production, it is on at the Theatre Royal from 5 to 21 March.