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The paradise that wasn’t

Mark Ravenhill is an awe-inspiring dramatist, despite his dubious politics

<strong>Over There</st

There are these two brothers, you see, identical twins, and they are close, very close. When Karl ejaculates (“It was my first time”), Franz does so, too, at precisely the same moment, even though he’s not having sex but watching television with their mother (“sitting there with Mama with

jizz in my pants”). But they could be closer, for they are separated by a wall – the Berlin Wall. Karl is brought up as a communist by his father, full of the joys of community and comradeship. Franz, in the west with his mother, is surrounded by all the crass joys of consumerism and the dubious merits of individualism.

It’s one of those plays where the protagonists spend the first half loving each other and the second half hating each other, like a screwball comedy in reverse. When the wall falls, their worlds collide. Franz, a “fuck-up” who can’t sustain a relationship, finds that Karl has been impersonating him at work and is muscling in on bringing up his baby. Karl doesn’t seem impressed with Franz’s world. “We were decent workers,” he says, “and you stripped that company – you took our buildings, our land, our tools – you took them all and you sacked every single one of us, and you rolled your forces in and occupied our country.”

It’s a point of view, I suppose. But Franz won’t tolerate it, or Karl’s mockery of his management-speak, which he clearly feels is just another compulsory political manifesto. There is nothing to be done but kill Karl, suffocate him with a pillow. Yet still he hears Karl’s voice. What can he do now? Well, he cuts off his hand, doesn’t he, and begins to eat his twin brother’s corpse.

Over There is written by Mark Ravenhill, and what can you say? Politically, he has to be an idiot. He may wish to thank the people he interviewed in Berlin, but he would have been better off talking to Peter Molloy, whose Lost World of Communism on BBC2 on 14 March presented a rather different picture of the socialist paradise that wasn’t East Germany. Over there, a 14-year-old schoolgirl could get ten years in jail for defacing a poster of Uncle Joe Stalin by drawing a bow on his moustache with her mother’s lipstick. I like to think that, had Erika Riemann been among those whom Ravenhill wished to thank, the Stasi would have earned more than a fleeting mention in this piece. “You rolled your forces in and took our country”? A perfect description, I would have thought, not of the fall of Erich Honecker, but of the Soviet suppression of the Berlin uprising of June 1953. Even if you take the piece to be about the collectivist v individualist division in all of us, it does not make much sense (after all, in free societies most of us can bridge that division in any way we choose).

As a dramatist, however, Ravenhill is anything but an idiot. Actually, given my experience of this and his most famous play, Shopping and Fucking, I am rather in awe of him. His plays look like nobody else’s; their language is hard as concrete and their visual imagery poetic. With his co-director Ramin Gray, his staging is strikingly economic even when it is daft – as it is when the Berlin Wall is represented by boxes of consumer goodies (um, who does Ravenhill think built it?). Even the casting is visually adroit, for although Luke Treadaway, who plays Karl, and Harry Treadaway, who plays Franz, are not identical twins, they are twins and there

is a “Was it Bill or was it Ben?” element to remembering who is who. By the end, Luke Treadaway is naked and, in a final coup de théâtre, arranges his penis and scrotum behind his legs so he can transform into Carly, a whorish American waitress who seduces Franz, who by now has lost all his German and become totally “all-American”.

Like Caryl Churchill in some works, Ravenhill does not really write plays. I would coin the term “theatrical installation” for his pieces. They are the equivalent of the video installations that chatter away in our modern art galleries, superficially resembling films but too allusive and non-linear to be read entirely that way. They are objects to behold rather than narratives to follow. Hard to watch, they repay thinking about after they are over, although not, alas, in Over There’s case, thinking about too hard.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Ends 21 March

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Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit