AdaptationDramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Alone in Berlin – York Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer: Hans Fallada

Translator/Adaptor: Alistair Beaton

Director: James Dacre

Hans Fallada’s novel, Jeder stirbt fur sich allein, usually translated as Alone in Berlin, written at great speed in the months before his death in 1947, is a flawed masterpiece, sprawling and sometimes unfocussed, but always compelling. One of those novels that, once read, it is difficult to escape from.

So it is exciting to find a modern English version, co-produced by York and the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where it premiered, and moving on to Oxford Playhouse. It’s unfortunate it will not have a longer tour, though, in truth, it mines the true Fallada seam only sporadically.

Alone in Berlin is about all the small, apparently insignificant acts of rebellion in Hitler’s Germany which achieved nothing except to keep the participants human. Fallada was presented with the story of Elise and Otto Hampel, a working-class couple who for three years during the war planted hand-written postcards denouncing the regime in apartment blocks, office buildings and so on for all to read – sadly nearly all were handed in to the authorities by a cowed populace. Fallada changed their names to Anna and Otto Quangel and surrounded them with a raft of characters who either enjoy and exploit the corruption of the regime or find their own little acts of rebellion.

It was inevitable that Alistair Beaton’s adaptation would focus in on the Quangels; no one would expect him to cover what he calls in the programme, “the sweeping panorama of life that Fallada gives us in the novel.” However, the cast of characters is too pared down, with the Quangels joined by two low-life criminals, two Gestapo officers and (her story severely truncated) Trudi, formerly the fiancée of the Quangels’ dead son. With almost no doubling of actors to create an impression of Berlin life, Beaton and director James Dacre rely on a personification of the golden Victory atop the Siegessaule who at the start strips off her golden finery and emerges as a cool Berliner in cabaret mode.  A striking coup de theatre with Jessica Walker in her element, but sadly the linking songs (music Orlando Gough) are not very strong and a lurking androgynous presence adds little to the play.

It’s sad to lose such characters as the Quangels’ neighbours, the odious Persickes and the mysterious Judge Fromm, but very understandable in the interests of the dramatic narrative. Eva Kluge is something different, the heart of the novel. In the opening pages she trudges up to the Quangels’ apartment with the letter telling of their son’s death – the catalyst for the postcard campaign – and in its closing pages she, the sole survivor of those who refused to conform, finds pastoral peace with her new husband and their adopted, formerly criminal son. Eva’s fecklessly wheedling first husband, Enno, re-christened Benno by Beaton, appears, but not Eva – and it’s not Alone in Berlin without her.

Abiola Ogunbiyi’s brightly intense Trudi does what she can, deprived of the character’s hinterland – and, apart from her, the play is about three pairs of characters. The villainous comedy of Benno (Clive Mendus) and Borkhausen (a Ronnie Barker-ish Julius D’Silva) works best. At first Joseph Marcell misses the air of intellectual superiority of Inspector Escherich, just as Prall, his superior officer (Jay Taylor), is almost too urbane, insufficiently boorish, but their scenes gain in power in the increasingly raw final section. Denis Conway and Charlotte Emmerson bring out the ordinariness of the Quangels, though neither script nor performance suggests Otto’s self-contained emotional isolation.

Visually the production is sombre, but highly imaginative in Jonathan Fensom’s use of Jason Lute’s iconic images of Berlin, and the last half hour of Dacre’s production finally brings the nightmare to life.

Runs until March 21st 2020

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