Back to Berlin: Iron Curtains, Iron Ladies and Border Breaking | Theatre review

Photo credit: Dali Mia Photography

By Tabitha Jukes

★ ★ ★ ★

As part of The OtherRoom’s eight-week Spring Fringe programme, which champions native and non-native alternative theatre, and showcases innovative performance in Cardiff. I was able to enjoy CB4’s debut show Back to Berlin. The show does exactly what the grassroots and developing Cardiff- based theatre company intends: presenting theatrical storytelling, with a difference. It is informative, entertaining and inspiringly creative. The clever use of cardboard boxes and the excellent use of both sound and songs were effective in provoking audience reactions and participation, especially a very energetic, if somewhat out of key, acoustic audience performance of ‘30 years of Deutschland’. CB4’s production proves that large-budget sets aren’t necessary for good theatre, and perhaps it’s the energy and passion of small-scale and self-funded companies that actually makes great theatre. 

The story, which commemorates the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, follows Bernhard Haas, a German-born man and former West-Berlin student. He has since left the liberal arts scene of his youth behind, and his former community hub of students, artists, queers and criminals who together sought freedom from military conscription. The show begins on the eve of the fall of the wall, in Bernhard’s English living room. Now settled in the UK, a family man who is working as an NHS physiotherapist (hero) in Thatcherite Britain. The play follows Bernhard’s journey back to Berlin and depicts his desire and motivation to experience the fall of the wall.  Whilst witnessing the unification of people from across Europe and the people of East and West Germany first-hand. The documentary and verbatim element of the show is portrayed through snippets of real-time conversations between writer and performer Luke, and his father Bernhard – whose true story inspired the performance –  in the present. The authenticity of Bernhard’s personal memories makes for a touching context to the fun and humour of the wider performance. 

The cast of Back to Berlin is small, with CB4 consisting of no more than four professional performers. This makes the production intimate, whilst the characters are undoubtedly diverse. Each cast member brings a different and genuine contribution to the play. Luke’s Bernhard is a believable character seeking to understand the past of German division, to grapple the future of the German people. Including the wider European communities. Questioning what it means to be divided and unified. The theme of European unification runs throughout Back to Berlin, leaving the audience with a sense of longing and nostalgia.

The use of multi-media and movement is effectively done by the cast in ensuring the audience travel along with the plot. The slow train journey to Berlin acts as a literal vehicle for the development of the play, whilst introducing the clashing political identities of different characters played by Emily, Alice and Frankie. Which allude to questions about xenophobia, gender, socialism and capitalism, dichotomies of good and bad society, and how the two become blurred in the political and historical context. I was particularly moved by Emily’s character of a Welsh socialist student, who pays tribute to Welsh culture and the often forgotten mining communities of South Wales. Emily’s character travels to East Berlin in search of fellow comrades to experience revolution, celebration and to gain a broader understanding of political oppression in the 1980s. The character of the high-flying European model questions gender and body ideologies, with Frankie’s character demanding agency and choice over body rights and one’s own financial security.

Back to Berlin makes for an eclectic theatre production: the finalising scenes of the Fall of the Wall and the rave scene pay tribute to expressive Berlin club culture, and link to ideas surrounding freedom and identity. A relevant and humbling true story, that comments on political freedom, and connection through expression and humour. CB4 have mastered navigating deeper ideas around the meaning of ‘home’ and belonging.  The division of Berlin, and the divide of families and communities, addresses critical contemporary questions regarding openness and exclusion. In a world of border-creating, nation-making and isolation, CB4 reminds us that borders and walls are never as permanent as they may seem. Despite the future being ever-unknown, CB4 reminds audiences that they have a choice to see and believe in counterculture.