Yes, THEY DIVIDED THE SKY certainly re-woke the peasant in me. And the lover and the historian and the right brain thinker who, over 70 minutes, collided full force with the old time believer. It is a story for a modern age which immerses the present in the past with a face splash of what might have been. What might be still if love, and politics, were not so transient. Playing at Belvoir Downstairs as part of their 25A programming, this interpretation of East German writer Christa Wolf’s revered and excoriated novel begins with laughter.
We meet Rita and Manfred at the beginning of their relationship. She is girly and flirty and he is tongue tied and eager. We will see their relationship grow as she takes up the Socialist call to teach and he remains rooted in the non-partisan world of science. Even living in an attic in his parents’ house doesn’t alter the chemistry between them but circumstances will change in a moment as the wall goes up between East and West and the political chill sets in.
Created by the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, THEY DIVIDED THE SKY is group devised work with none of the untidiness and variations of too many voices that one can associate with such. Instead, Director and Adaptor Daniel Schlusser and his cast and creatives have drawn a tightly constructed work which pays suitable homage to the original without being wordy and supplicating.
The staging is simple, one metaphor to rule them all by the end of the show when Rita and Manfred, close to drowning in their differences, stand facing away from each other watching different sides of the audience. A very different state from the charming beginning when Nikki Shiels and Stephen Phillips’ characters are courting. At the beginning they appear with no light change from the pre-show state, merely a door bang, and she has a most engaging giggle. She touches him often, to his delight, to make a point. After all, it was she who was physically attracted to this older man first. He is unsure and sensitive but engaged by her energy and enthusiasm for conversation.
It’s a lovely performance from Shiels and Phillips who have an equality of charisma and a vibrant rapport. Their characters are clear and beautifully realised, as are their alterations as alteration finds in a political world that roils and ferments around them. There’s an tenderness and truth to what they say as if they can’t lie to each other in person. Rita and Manfred arrive bursting in with the joy of being together. That beginning, under stark fluorescent tubes is indicative of the rest of the production and how gently elucidatory it will be.
Warm amber is contrasted with steel whites as their life adventures are played out against a background of expressive technical conceptualisation. In one elongated sequence, for example, the audience travels with them for a sensuous few minutes of light and sound. Toward the end of these deliciously aesthetic moments one of the characters will extricate themself with considerable effort from under their burdens and the other eases away the time until sliding gracefully out from under. The rest of the show might be dynamic with movement and ideas but here we have a revealing of the gulf that will grow between a couple who often ask questions of each other in the third person. It’s dramatic, coherent and generous evocation.
From forest to train testing, the audio track is impressively created. Haunting, recognizable music when required and the low thump of industrial capitalism as leitmotif, even an orchestral space sequence punctuated by Sputnik bips. And as memory abstracts and the current situation floods their minds, solo piano music reflects an inner tumult expressed with outer confusion and the dullness of experience.
If art is indeed a weapon, as the play suggests, then THEY DIVIDED THE SKY is crafted with precision. It is a tense night at the theatre despite the humour and joyous performances. A knowledge of Christa Wolf’s novel is not a requirement for immersion as this production soaks the soul with carry and intimacy in both the world of Rita and Manfred and an almost forgotten political past. Fantastic! I just loved it.