Over There: When reunification doesn’t bring reconciliation

With this year marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mark Ravenhill's new play “Over There” makes separated identical twins into a metaphor for the reunification of Germany. Ben Knight talks to co-director Ramin Gray.

Over There: When reunification doesn't bring reconciliation
Photo: Simon Annand

If it is true that a divided audience marks artistic success, then “Over There” has already proved its worth.

The reviews that greeted the opening of the play in London at the beginning of March were extremely mixed, the most divergent that co-director Ramin Gray has ever had. “I’ve never had such a split response – some really terrible reviews, but some people absolutely love it,” he told The Local recently.

The casting of twins is both a unique theatrical device and a provocative allegory, and next week the play will get its first exposure to a German audience when it is performed at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin. But Gray does not expect an entirely friendly response from the Germans either: “I’ve got a brother-in-law in Berlin who doesn’t want to come and see it on the basis of what he thinks it’s saying about east and west.”

Negative bemusement and anger was a recurring mood in the British critical reaction, with a lot of reviewers confessing bafflement at the 75-minute show, which depicts the re-uniting of western Franz and eastern Karl, played by Harry and Luke Treadaway, just before the fall of the Wall. This might have something to do with the excessive use of custard and cross-dressing. One confused reviewer said the play swings in style “between being irritating and strangely mesmerising,” while another didn’t see the piece as theatre at all, suggesting: “It’s more a sort of philosophical installation.”

Yet there have been positive responses too. The Guardian’s Michael Billington went along with its difficulties, finding a “perfect synthesis between story and subject” and observing that “Ravenhill vividly captures the west’s voyeuristic fascination with its puritanical other half.”

What united many British critics was a feeling that, whatever the wit and plausibility of the main idea, or the virtuosity of the two actors, the metaphor was laboured – the characters couldn’t survive as real people under the weight of the political symbolism they were carrying.

This reaction is at least in part down to its deliberate defiance of the British theatrical tradition. “I tried to work in a more German way, for want of a better word. And some of the critics really laid into that,” Gray said. “But it seemed ridiculous to do a play about Berlin without picking up some of what’s going on here.”

He noted that there has been more and more dialogue between British and German theatre in recent years. “A lot of British theatre people are envious of what seems to be possible on a German stage,” he said, admitting he is fascinated with the East German style in particular: “I have a load of respect and envy, in a way, for that work because it’s coming out of a much more rigorous tradition.”

Unlike many reappraisals of East German history, this play ignores the privations of living under a dictatorship and concentrates on the disconnection that East Germans felt and still feel in the new Germany. Ravenhill’s research in the former communist East apparently unearthed many dissatisfied souls, and in an interview with a British newspaper he spoke of how such dissatisfaction can only be dismissed as Ostalgie – a play on the German words for nostalgia of the East.

In many young East Germans, too young to actually remember the GDR, Ravenhill found anger towards their parents, which he compared with the anger of the ’68 generation towards its parents from the World War II generation. They’re angry, his play says, because this wasn’t a re-unification at all, but one country being consumed by another.

Gray summarises the playwright’s line of thought: “It so happens that Mark is going out with, and is about to marry, a German guy called Mark. And it was those two things – the big political event and the tiny personal event that led him to this idea of twins being reunited, having to get to know each other and the profound fear in any relationship that eventually you either eat the other person or you get eaten. You always have the problem, don’t you, whether the other person subsumes your identity, or you subsume theirs.”

Over There is being presented in two parallel showcases at London’s Royal Court theatre and the Schaubühne. At the Royal Court it was part of the Off The Wall season of new plays about Germany, while in Berlin it was commissioned for the Schaubühne’s international Festival on collapsing ideologies, entitled Digging Deep and Getting Dirty.

Gray is closely associated with this theatrical alliance, but he still does not promise himself a resounding triumph with Over There in Berlin: “Whether it’s in England or Germany – when you start talking about well-known, very recent history, people have very, very powerful feelings about it. The play is very bold and it’s saying something quite contentious.”

So this unsettling piece could find itself critically friendless in both cultures – not a twin, in fact, but an orphaned only child.

Over There is on at Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz on March 23, 24, 25, 7:30pm. Tickets: 030/89 00 23

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.