Fringe theatre is a different kind of beast from your average production – with the budget constraints and the need for innovation comes also a greater freedom to think out of the box, to experiment with ideas, visuals and languages, to engage old subjects from new perspectives. Put this in the framework of the Other Room – by now well-known in Cardiff for an ability to showcase emerging talent and unusual narrations, with a consistently high standard of quality in its productions – and you get the Spring Fringe, a series of shows that promises to rock the world of its audience in unexpected ways.
Enter CB4 Theatre and their Back to Berlin, a production inspired by a real story as narrated by the father of writer and actor Luke Seidel-Haas, whose voice is heard guiding the narration at pivotal points (and who, it was revealed at the end, was also present in the audience). Luke’s father Bernhard hailed from West Berlin, had moved to England and started a family there, and decided to travel back for the momentous occasion of the fall of the Wall – experiencing a lot en route, due to a crucial lack of available plane tickets that forced him to travel by boat and train. The show follows his trip up to the cathartic moment of the fall of the Wall – and the somewhat anticlimactic aftermath – breaking the fourth wall a couple of times in the process, delivering a couple good-natured history lessons, and musing on what such a crucial point in German (or European) history has to teach us all about what may be happening today. The inevitable Brexit reference was not avoided towards the end, and I am glad that it wasn’t – after not being brought up throughout the narration, when it came in, it felt poignant and not at all opportunistic.
Back to Berlin is in many ways a show made on a bootstrap, something that the cast of CB4 Theatre is not shy about, openly joking about the lack of a perhaps needed fifth actor and the need to be inventive when it comes to stage supplies. This does not damage the production, however; the use of cardboard boxes to represent all environments of the play is ingenious and the threadbare visuals end up being very well suited for a story that deals very much with the contrast between those who have and those who have not, with the essentialism of deciding what one should or should not call himself (in a particularly moving scene, a discussion is struck about whether anyone involved should think of themselves as a West/East German, or just a German, or an European, and it becomes clear that it is far easier for the more privileged to overlook the difference, where the least privileged may not enjoy that luxury). In spite of the very serious subject matter, Back to Berlin also has a welcome sense of humour, somewhat surreal at times. It can be chaotic in places, but chaos is a well-known, perhaps even necessary component of fringe theatre. Back to Berlin does better when it embraces its chaos, its self-reflective moments, and its raw emotions, than when it tries to unpack them, in places somewhat too much: in a generally smooth, engaging, and emotional run, the only weak spots present themselves when the text makes an attempt at rationalising and explaining what it has already shown all too effectively.
The idea of feeling deeply moved in watching a pile of cardboard boxes tumbling down may sound strange and unexpected, but the fact that this production achieved precisely this result speaks to the sincerity of feeling behind it and the ability to convey it. In this sense, Back to Berlin is clever in its minimalism. Its no-nonsense spirit gives it a sharp edge that it uses to great effect, especially towards the very end, but also in some other places (the sequence on the boat comes to mind). Relevant, sincere, and enthusiastic in its storytelling, it has the somewhat rough, blurry-edged nature of many fringe shows, but it nails its landing, and sparks reflections that will linger with its audience well past its conclusion.
Until March 6
Festival runs until April 4