Here’s yet another play, that’s an adaptation of a book and a film, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had heard of, read or seen. The original book, Jeder stirbt für sich allein, (Every Man Dies Alone) was published in 1947, written by Hans Fallada, based on the true Resistance story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Surprisingly, it wasn’t translated into English until 2009. That’s a long time for such a significant work to remain virtually unknown to the English-Speaking public. Alistair Beaton has translated and adapted the original book, and the result is this play, Alone in Berlin, which received its world premiere in Northampton, before embarking on a short tour.
It’s a simple story. Otto and Anna Quangel live a humdrum but respectable life in Berlin. He, a carpenter, quietly goes along with the powerful Nazi regime in order to put food on the table; she, quietly but privately, opposes the regime. They have to break the news to their son Markus’s fiancée Trudi that he has been killed in action. Her coping strategy is to join a Resistance movement at work. This inspires Anna to want to do something practical to oppose the Nazis, but what? Her keenness for action brings Otto out of his rut, and he decides to start writing postcards with anti-Nazi messages and leave them in blocks of flats all around the city.
This simple act of resistance carries on for some time. Local Gestapo officer Escherich must trace the perpetrator, and in turn he is under pressure for results from his boss, the SS Officer Prall. It’s inevitable that Otto and Anna will be found, and punished – but how did the Gestapo track them down, what will be the punishment, and what of the human collateral that suffers as a result? I’m not going to tell you that – or else there’s no point you’re going to see it.
Let’s concentrate on the good stuff. Firstly, at the blunt end, it reveals the unease of day-to-day living, with the enforced Heil Hitler greeting, and the threat of being reported if you don’t use it. There’s the casual hatred of Jews, and the fact that their lives and property are easy meat for abuse. If you want to just break into a Jewish person’s apartment and steal their goods, no one’s going to blame you for it. Whilst at the sharp end, it shows the brutality and mental instability of the Nazi officers who enforce the regime, with a shockingly unpleasant torture scene, masterminded by an SS Officer gleefully snapping fingers off his victim and giggling whilst he does it. These are people whose Mr Hyde aspect has been given full permission to run riot. We used to say, it couldn’t happen again, but don’t you be too sure.
Also, and, thankfully, more subtly, it reveals what happens when an essentially good person remains good whilst evil thrives all around him, and what happens when another essentially good person chooses to go along with the evil – which one fares better under those same circumstances? Otto, admittedly laboriously and ineffectually at first, starts composing his postcards because it’s the only thing an insignificant man can do. Inspector Escherich, however, a police officer of longstanding experience and presumably reasonably high repute, makes the decision to toe the Nazi line and satisfy his new masters’ cruelty. During his investigation he weaselly offers two suspects the chance of suicide as a means of his “solving the case” whilst not directly involving himself in the dirty details. Comparing the personal journeys of Otto and Escherich, essentially the brave versus the coward, was, for me, the most interesting aspect of the evening.
However, it does take a long time and a lot of effort to get there. Sadly, this fascinating story is told in an over-stylised and slow manner. The decision to narrate/interrupt the story by an angel statue that comes to life and sings, Cabaret-style, repetitive (very repetitive) lyrics that reflect the downfall of the age, is a curious one to say the least. By the time the war was in full swing, the decadence of the Weimar years was a thing of the past anyway, so this feels anachronistic. Should the angel statue represent a nostalgia for a better time? She waits on the sidelines and observes all the action so perhaps she is meant to suggest that what happens to Otto and Anna is fate. Maybe? Not sure. What she unfortunately does achieve is to minimise what should be growing tension. Tension grows out of a sense of real threat, but her presence is ethereal, invisible, mystic even, which, I would suggest, works against what the play sets out to achieve. Whenever the statue interrupts the flow of the play, down comes the suspense. Worse, it actually feels pretentious – and it doesn’t even have the benefit of being tuneful. I’m afraid I didn’t like that element to the production one bit.
To be fair, it wasn’t technically a great performance either. In a very unfortunate error early on, Charlotte Emmerson, as Anna, broke the news to Abiola Ogunbiyi’s Trudi, that Otto had died. Pause to take that in… isn’t Otto (Denis Conway) sitting next to her? Oh, she meant Markus…. and that left three actors with nowhere to go apart from carry on regardless, but the atmosphere had gone. As a result, I was never certain whether Ms Emmerson’s occasional dithering over the lines was a deliberate characterisation point about Anna, or whether she was simply under-rehearsed. There were similar incidents of ragged prop-handling, with Trudi searching for ages to find the photo in her bag, Escherich having difficulty getting the gun out of his coat pocket, and the statue fumbling with a postcard on the floor. Added to which, as the curtain fell at the end of Act One, a stagehand walked on stage left before the curtain had fully dropped. Have to say, I wasn’t that impressed.
That aside, there are some very good performances to admire. Jay Taylor’s tetchy, and gradually increasingly unhinged SS Officer Prall, is a superb portrayal of growing evil. He’s like a sadistic, spoilt child, who’s grown too big for his boots and in a decent society would have been taken down a peg or two – but in wartime Nazi Germany, with status and power, he’s uncontrolled, off the radar, wicked. Horrific, but excellent. Denis Conway is also very good as Otto, particularly in the last quarter of the play when he starts to face the consequences of his actions. Those were genuine tears welling up his eyes. Abiola Ogunbiyi gives a clear and precise performance as Trudi, the only other character who develops during the play – from radical to housewife. And I really enjoyed the performance of Joseph Marcell as Escherich, increasingly faced with his own cowardice, trying to wheedle his way out of trouble – totally convincing.
It’s a great story of quiet heroism, but sometimes it struggles to get its voice heard over the stylised production and lack of tension. I was expecting more, sadly. Thank heavens for some good performances. Alone in Berlin plays at the Royal until 29th February, then continues to York and Oxford.
P. S. Mrs C didn’t like the harsh bright lights at the beginning and end of the show that blind the audience from the back of the stage. What was the point of them? She asked. Not a clue, I’m afraid. Is it fair on the audience to blind them like that? Ermm, no, I don’t think so.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan