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A Response to Over There by Mark Ravenhill

I recently came across a Facebook story that documents how a young woman, Anais, who was adopted from South Korea and grew up in France, ended up finding and reaching out to her twin sister, Samantha, from whom she was separated at birth. A friend alerted Anais to a movie trailer which featured a young woman who looked just like her, and upon researching her IMDB article (Samantha is a working actress and an alum of BU’s School of Theatre program!) Anais discovered that Samantha was also adopted from South Korea and was born on the same day. Anais reached out to Samantha via social media, and the two ended up connecting via Skype, meeting in person, and launching a successful Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary of their story.

This remarkable tale got me thinking what it would be like to have a twin, especially one that I did not grow up with. The photos and commentary from the article show how close Anais and Samantha became, how they have so much in common, and how they talk all the time. My initial thought was that if I discovered I had a twin, I would freak out and have an identity crisis. All of a sudden, someone out there has my same face, birthday, and age; wouldn’t that shake up my idea of my own individuality? Though I suppose I could connect strongly with someone who I felt was very much like me, and it isn’t wild to think that surprise twins could connect so beautifully and so easily. All relationships are based around a strong degree of sameness, when you think about it.

To relate all this to theatre, as I was perusing the fare on Digital Play TV, the recording of Over There at the Royal Court Theatre caught my eye. Written by Mark Ravenhill and featuring the acting twins Luke and Harry Treadaway, it was part of a series called Off the Wall: a series of new plays about Germany. It premiered in March 2009 and follows two brothers, Franz and Karl, who were separated by the Berlin Wall when their mother fled from East Germany to West with Franz while Karl and their father stayed behind. Unlike Samantha and Anais, they spent their early childhood together and know the other exists, so Franz is able to visit Karl as he pleases, but Karl is not allowed to leave East Berlin and glimpse into Franz’s life. Karl does, however, hear about Franz’s house, young son, and career, so when the Berlin Wall collapses, he is ecstatic to experience Franz’s life for himself. At first, he is enamored of Franz’s world and all things West Germanic: he buys decadent food, spends quality time with Franz and his son, as well as dressing in Franz’s clothes and standing in for him at his job (unbeknownst to Franz on his sick day). After a while of enduring this, Franz takes a stand against Karl, asserting that he has his own life and that Karl cannot be him. This causes Karl to have an identity crisis and unravel, and the only way he can piece himself back together is to more boldly embody the Communist ideals and rhetoric of his father and East Berlin, thereby separating himself from Franz and his world.

This resonated with me both on a symbolic scale as well as a personal one. The meat of this play lies in the metaphor of the two brothers personifying a divided East and West Germany. As soon as the wall falls down, one of the first things Karl exclaims to Franz is “I get to be you!” rather than “I get to see you!” However, Karl has more trouble assimilating than he thought, and much like West Germany, Franz’s efforts to help Karl get back on his feet again were in vain because they were still too different to completely reconcile.

Their dynamic in some way reminds me of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Both men come from privileged backgrounds, are of a similar age, and look alike. However, while Charles has managed to develop and adhere to a high moral code, win the love of Lucie Manet, and build a life for himself, Sydney has made the least of his gifts as a lawyer by way of alcoholism and his own blend of cynical nonchalance. It is only when he sees a man who resembles him in most aspects but who has done more with his life than he has that he is able to reflect upon his own choices and begin to become a different person. That is what intrigued me most about Anais and Samantha’s story; if I ever found my twin or doppelganger, would I compare my life to theirs? Would it hold up? Would it inspire me to make different life choices?

That is also what resonated most with me on a personal level when I watched Over There. Karl’s desire to possess all the wonderful things he perceives Franz to have – a great job, a nice house, and a son – is palpable at the beginning of the play. He is aware of his disadvantage in East Berlin, however much he ascribes to his father’s socialist values. He is eager to take part in and of Franz’s life until Franz abruptly reminds him, “You’re not me!” What must it be like to see someone who looks exactly like you living your dream life? Does Karl feel he is owed the same things that Franz has because they came from the same background and are essentially the same person? However similar Karl and Franz may be, though, they are not the same person. They are distinct individuals who happen to look alike. They have different values and desires, even if they have similar tastes. They even have different upbringings, although they come from the same parents. Much like the peoples they represent, East and West Germany have their own distinct experiences even if they can trace their heritage back to the same source.

I suppose that was one of the strange things I took away from this play: how appearance and heritage are not sole markers of identity. Life experience, as well as personal choices, have a much greater effect on personality. Anais and Samantha were able to establish a sisterly connection after so many years of separation, but it wasn’t just their past that drew them together; it was because the people they became still had a lot in common. For Karl and Franz, their shared heritage was not enough for them to mesh. They had to find a greater connection between their present selves, a shared bond, in order to have a successful relationship. And unfortunately, that just wasn’t present.

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