East of Berlin

This is something of a coup for the small Southwark Playhouse at Elephant and Castle. A European premiere of a widely praised work by Canadian, Hannah Moscovitch, East of Berlin was Moscovitch’s first full length play. Widely praised when it opened in Toronto in 2009, it’s since been revived across the country.
Her latest, This is War, about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan has likewise drawn considerable praise.

East of Berlin also has its roots in war, not as one might suspect from the title, in the Stasi riddled, Iron Curtain days following World War Two but earlier, in the horrors east of Berlin that were the camps and the Holocaust.

It’s hard to imagine a fresh approach to a subject about which so much has been written but amazingly Moscovitch achieves it by focussing on the off-spring and legacy of those involved – in this case the son of a Nazi SS surgeon at Auschwitz, his fellow German and college friend, Hermann and Sarah, the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor.

A tale of conscience-raising, guilt and love, Moscovitch switches narration and flash-back with amazingly mature skill, opening the play in the place, too, which shines a fresh light on the Nazi legacy – South America where so many former Nazis found sanctuary.

`Rudi’, a young chain-smoker has returned home to Paraguay after seven years away in Europe. Played by up-and-coming Scottish actor, Jordan McCurrach, Rudi’s journey is about to reach its climax as he stands before his father’s study – a repository of history, the place which lodged secrets which, growing up with a man he thought dull and conventional, came to be revealed as something horrifically other. Atonement arrives – but not in the form expected.

Suffice to say this Southwark Playhouse production, directed by Blythe Stewart not only creates an extraordinarily harrowing and hermetic atmosphere in a tiny space by virtue of its use of a few bookcases but Moscovitch’s rich characterisation is delivered by McCurrach, Tom Lincoln (Hermann) and Jo Herbert (Sarah) with rare subtlety and finesse.

If you want to see rising stars of tomorrow, productions like these, on the fringe, are the place to see them. South London especially is rich in such venues, worth their weight in gold.

McCurrach, for example, fair-haired, with a touch of the Robert Redfords about him carries all the charm and charisma necessary for a young man who, blissfully unaware of his father’s actions, is painfully dragged into awareness by Hermann. Lincoln, too, will be a name to watch in the future. Bespectacled, mild mannered, he makes the homosexual Hermann at once appealing – and dangerous. Herbert’s Sarah, too, is a fully rounded, firey individual, meeting Rudi in a research library in Berlin after he has run away after Hermann’s revelations of the true nature of his father’s role in the war.

Moscovitch is herself Jewish. But her writing is also even-handed and full of emotional and psychological insights giving East of Berlin particular depth and conviction. As Rudi and Sarah find themselves falling in love, Moscovitch has Sarah questioning the nature of that love: is it real love or just the Nazi’s son `curiosity’ for her Jewishness? And when Hermann, once again and fatally, intervenes, are his actions motivated by ethical considerations, a sense of justice or sexual rejection?

Fine, very fine. Definitely worth a ride south.