Over There, Over Here

Over There is a play by Mark Ravenhill which premiered in March 2009 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and which I was able to watch on digitaltheatre.com. It tells the story of twin brothers who were raised on different sides of the Berlin wall, but come together after its fall. The boys, Karl from the East and Franz from the West, are not only identical, but they experience things from each other’s lives and can speak in perfect unison. The extended metaphor of the play, in which the two brothers represent their respective sides of Germany, is a simple but at times an incredibly effective one. Though it does feel a bit heavy-handed by the end, overall Ravenhill explores large societal issues in a moving, elegant way.

One of the strongest aspects of this production is the actors, twins Harry (Franz) and Luke (Karl) Treadaway. Their slim bodies and angular faces are not only attractive to the point of approaching feminine prettiness, but become blank slates onto which ideas of cultural identity gender are projected. They also literally becomes slates for an array of costumes and even food products. Their appearances are vital to their characters. In the beginning of the play, they are incredibly different–Franz wears a checkered button-down shirt, and his hair is neatly slicked back into place, while Karl wears a simple t-shirt, and his hair is disheveled and falls over his forehead. Near the middle of the play, as their identities begin to meld, they wear identical suits, and Karl attempts to mimic Franz’s put-together hair style.

The actors stand out vividly in a simple set. It is a box, with sterile white-blue ceiling, floor and walls that make the voices slightly echo. It is harshly, evenly lit, which makes it feel like a TV set. This gives the play a hyper-realistic quality that takes it to the point of surreal. I couldn’t completely get this from watching the film, but having been in the Royal Court Theatre I can imagine that this set must have been extremely jarring when countered with the theatre’s dark, traditional interior. The lighting also allowed the details of the actors’ bodies to be perfectly visible, making the times when Karl is covered in food even more visceral and jarring than they would have been if his body was in shadow, or even softly lit. It is not a play that shies away getting dirty; nothing is hidden, neither in the language nor the blocking, and the lighting emphasizes this. It is clearly illustrated at one point near the beginning, when the brothers masturbate together while watching a porn video. The director chose to put the imagined TV screen in the audience, so that the actors stand at the edge of the stage and touch themselves literally right in front of the audience’s faces. The way it’s staged makes it graphically impossible to ignore.

Another important aspect of the set is that it has no doors; it is literally just a box that is missing the fourth side. At the beginning of the show, the actors walk down the aisles in the theatre and climb on stage into the set which neither of them leaves until the end. The closed set is representative of their relationship: they are literally trapped with each other, and can’t escape each other because they are so closely linked. Anyone with a sibling, especially a twin, could surely relate to the sometimes claustrophobic feeling of being stuck with another person forever. These two characters, especially, don’t have any other family, except Franz’s son, since both their parents die early on in the show. They are isolated in their world with only each other. More broadly, since the brothers’ relationship mirrors that of East and West Germany, the set can be seen to represent the unified country, in which two separate cultures which used to be one but have grown apart and developed different ideologies, are forced to coexist. This is the overarching metaphor of the play, and it is clearly visualized by the set.

The space the brothers occupy is sparsely furnished, with a debris of boxes, cans and containers stacked up along the back wall–mostly alcohol and food. When the Berlin wall actually falls, near the beginning of the play, it is shown by Karl picking up the tallest stack of boxes and tumbling them into a pit in front of the stage. Visually representing the fall of the wall this way makes it immediate and personal; something Karl actually made happen, even though his character had nothing to do with it. Having the wall made out of cardboard boxes also represents the materialistic divide between the East and West.

Objects are used representationally in other ways as well. First, we see a bag of white Tesco flour as the ashes of the twins’ father. He dies shortly after the fall of the wall, and it is implied that he simply couldn’t live in the new world, since he was passionately Communist and lived all his life in East Germany. Another symbol is Franz’s son, who is born near the beginning of the play and grows a few years throughout it, represented by a yellow sponge. The child is the only other character in this piece besides the two brothers, and becomes a huge point of contention between them by the end. Part of this is his potential to learn different ideas–a child can take in and be taught almost anything. He can absorb ideas, which makes the sponge an apt stage metaphor. The child as an abstract idea also represents the future, and the question of what language and political ideology he should be taught becomes an argument between the brothers. Karl wants to instill Communist ideals in him, which Franz strongly opposes. Near the end of the play, Karl rips part of the paper bag containing the flour that represented the father’s ashes and places the paper on the sponge, like a hat or scarf. Physically combining these stage metaphors is a clear representation of Karl trying to force his, and his father’s, Communist ideals upon the next generation.

The language the child speaks is also a topic of debate. Language plays an important role in this piece, and underscores the cultural tension the play explores. The play is in English, and the actors have been speaking it the whole time with their natural British accents. When Franz addresses his son at one point, he speaks in German. We quickly learn that this is representative of him speaking English–since the characters of German, they have been speaking German the whole time. When he tells Karl why he speaks to his son in English, Franz says, “We’re going to need English; we all need English.” Though he later disavows everything American, at first Karl agrees, and says that he would like to learn English as well. We see the brothers role-play in order to give Karl a chance to practice: Franz puts on an apron and speaks English with an American accent tinged with a German one. He pretends to be a Californian waitress, and flirts with his brother, who attempts to converse in more stilted, awkward English.

The drag performance in this moment, though not a particularly serious or convincing one, revisits but reverses the situation in which the play began. At the opening, Karl is dressed as the American waitress, but more fully than Franz: he actually wears a dress, heals, padding and a wig. Franz is eating breakfast at the diner, while Karl seductively mops the floor and flirts with him. This prologue morphs into a conversation between the two brothers, and the linear plot of the play begins. The end of the play, though, revisits the diner scene. Franz ultimately kills Karl by smothering him with a mop, symbolizing West Germany dominating East. Karl continues talking once he is dead, though, and Karl realizes that the only way to silence him is to eat him, so he does. He squirts barbeque sauce all over his body, and then puts his face in his torso and pretends to take a bite, getting sauce all around his mouth. “We are one,” he declares, when the deed is done. It is the ultimate act of domination; the West has literally and figuratively consumed the East. After this, Franz places the blonde wig back on Karl’s head, and Karl once again becomes Karly, the flirtatious waitress he was in the opening. He strips naked but stands with his penis hidden between his legs so that he looks like a woman. He spoons Franz, and the play ends with Franz’s line “I love you, Karly” and the men kissing as the lights black out. It’s a complicated ending, and one that was problematic for me. I don’t know if the prologue and epilogue scenes take place in the same time in the future–Franz mentions that his son is grown up and in college–and that the rest of the play is in the past, or if they are simply abstract scenes that don’t literally fit into the timeline. It makes sense for them to take place years after the present action of the play, but then who is the female Karly? She might be just a woman in whom Franz sees something of his lost brother, and is attracted to in that sense. Or she might me an incarnation of Karl. If we look at the scenes in a more abstract sense, they could be a commentary on the gender roles into which we often force the concepts of East and West. Karl, as East Germany and more broadly the Eastern nations of the world, becomes the submissive female, while Franz is in the position of power as the West since he is being waited on. I think either interpretation is valid.

In its discussion about gender as related to Eastern and Western cultures, Over There reminds me of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. In Hwang’s play, the stereotype of a Western man’s fantasy about the perfect submissive Eastern woman is explored, and then turned on its head. Gallimard, a French diplomat, falls in love and is in a 20-year relationship with Song, a Chinese opera singer who he believes is the perfect woman but is, in fact, a man and a governmental spy. Song’s lines from Act 3, Scene 1 perfectly illustrate this idea: “The West thinks of itself as masculine–big guns, big industry, big money–so the East is feminine–weak, delicate, poor…Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes. The West believes that the East, deep down, wants to be dominated–because a woman can’t think for herself.” Song is able to convince Gallimard by playing into every stereotype he believe in and being completely submissive. Likewise, Karl is ultimately dominated and destroyed by Franz, and literally becomes a female. Both these plays show us what is wrong with these stereotypes, though. M. Butterfly ends with Gallimard realizing that he is the one who has truly taken the traditionally “feminine” role in the relationship, since Song held the power all along. It also shows us that questions of gender and sexuality (and, by extension, East and West) are much more complicated than our binaries would suggest, and that in the end, they don’t matter at all. At the end of Over There, even though Karl is a woman, he is in the position of holding and comforting Franz, and it is Franz who declares his love, to which Karl does not verbally respond. Though one character appears as male and the other as female, they are not sticking to conventional roles and therefore throwing our assumptions about who is truly dominating who into question.

Over There is a complicated, visceral exploration of the relationship between brothers, genders, and nations. I am so grateful that it is available online, because though I think it is a play that should be seen widely, it is unlikely that I would ever have had a chance to experience it live. It’s a shame, because we need more pieces like this which truly challenge our cultural assumptions.

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