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Mark Ravenhill’s Over There: Not For the Faint of Heart

In 2009, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mark Ravenhill brought his in-yer-face production, Over There, to the Royal Court Theatre’s Off The Wall Season. It is the story of twin brothers separated by the Berlin Wall, reunited just before its fall. The two brothers attempt to make a life together and ultimately fail as they are faced with fundamental differences from their upbringing. Mark Ravenhill, the godfather of in-yer-face theatre, created a piece that is shocking and vulgar. This bare bones production really bares it all and is gruesome to watch, not only physically but psychologically.

The two identical twin brothers, Karl from the East, communism, and Franz from the West, consumerism, symbolize the duality of the lives on either side of the wall. The two begin their relationship with complete optimism, completing each other’s sentences, in awe of the discovery of their mirror. However, as the two continue sharing a home, clothes, and experiences, the synchronicity shrinks away and they begin to come up against struggles for power and what is considered “normal”. The journey of their relationship is a political allegory for a divided nation, the two are curious about how the other one has lived, but protective of their own. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was great cause for celebration, the assumption of equality, and on a human level, everyone wanted the same thing, just like the brothers. But ultimately, the east had to make drastic changes. The east became normalized. The east, embodied by Karl, was always focused on the individual, but when the divide crumbles, Karl, and East Berlin, must adapt to the new “normal”. At first, the adapting is exciting, Karl returns from the grocery store, thrilled by the excess offered to him in the consumerist West. As their relationship continues, the two are at each others’ throats, realizing that their beliefs and very ways of life are in conflict and Karl is unable to deal with all of the changes he is experiencing postwar and post Wall. Franz still attempts to help Karl and with his multitude of cleaning supplies, attempts to wash away the mess of condiments Karl has poured on himself. In doing so, he also tries to wash away the history and the past, trying to begin anew. Karl resists this change, knowing that the past is forever ingrained in him and no amount of dustpans or cleaning spray can aid that. The only thing that subdues him is when Franz suffocates him with the mop. Franz then proceeds to eat his brother. This act of cannibalism is representative of how West Berlin devoured East Berlin. The easterners were forced to fully adapt to the consumerist way of life, changing their language and their beliefs. Earlier in the play, Franz remarks to his brother that “we’ll never be one,” but by the end of the play, he successfully (after a couple attempts) swallows his brother’s chest and completes the act of merging the two. The two scenes bookending the play are set in America and Franz is fully westernized, representing how the further west has, in turn, devoured its eastern counterpart. America devours Germany.

The play deals with actual, enormous political issues in an absurd way.  For half the play Karl is just a mess, stripped down to his underwear, and covered in condiments and I find that is an accurate way to depict how things actually happened in Berlin- it was just a mess. The production concept was encapsulated for me when Franz doesn’t bat an eye at the abundance of groceries.  Many of the props were consumer products, but representative of other things. The staging of the play otherwise was incredibly minimal. There were transitions that leapt through time and space, no one was ever one place or another, but the setting was always clear in the physicality and relationship between the brothers.

Both the twins become very possessive over the parents who raised them, even though the parents technically belong to both children. They retain their loyalty to the parent that stuck by their side, representative of the loyalty to their side of the wall. The possessiveness becomes extreme, however, when the two brothers become the parent with the relationship to Franz’s child. The child becomes a pawn in their relationship as they each try to impose their beliefs but are unable to speak directly to each other. Karl tries to take control of raising Franz’s son and it gets out of hand and he kidnaps the child. Although the props were so seemingly random and out of place, the use of a sponge for the son was particularly powerful for me. Both of the brothers were trying to impose their ways of life, their sides of the wall, upon the child, and being an impressionable child, he would absorb all the new information and be able to rattle it back. They are able to display their loyalty to their respective sides by imposing their beliefs and teachings on the child, making him their own. These violent grapplings with possession are all part of the power battles the two brothers struggle through together.

The twins, cast as real brothers Harry and Luke Treadaway, undergo less physical trauma throughout the play than another in-yer-face play like Blasted, (except for in that cannibalism scene which was gruesome and disgusting to watch) but what makes the play brutally uncomfortable to watch is the sheer force of psychological warfare the two spit at one another. There is an inherent chemistry between the two actors, as Ravenhill would know as he has acted alongside his own brother,

Ravenhill’s gruesome political allegory brilliantly depicts the nuanced political tensions surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall. With brutal psychological and physical torture, these two seemingly identical twin brothers are forced to deal with one another, despite their drastically separate upbringings. However, they discover that they are identical in features, they are opposite in beliefs and their relationship crumbles. This play beautifully executes a difficult story through a clear relationship that is personal and human on the level of brothers but giant in terms of the world’s political landscape.

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