Behind the Scenes at NNT – Over There

Kicking off the in-house season at the New Theatre is Cold War drama Over There. Originally written by Mark Ravenhill, the play tells the story of twin brothers Karl and Franz, who have spent their lives growing up either side of the Berlin Wall. The two young men are finally reunited as the Iron Curtain begins to crack and their personal stories become helplessly interwoven with that of a country trying to piece itself back together after decades of division.

At the helm of this project are director Charlotte Sanders and producer Harry Pavlou, both of whom are taking on their respective roles for the first time. Having first seen Over There performed at the National Student Drama Festival in 2016, they both felt immediately drawn to what they felt was a brilliantly minimalistic work that took a deeply personal approach to a raw piece of recent history.

Indeed, the play’s intrinsic link between family trauma and political change still rings true today. “I think everyone in our generation should know more about the fall of the Berlin Wall,” states Pavlou, highlighting the significance of an event that, despite taking place a mere twenty-eight years ago, is already viewed by many as relegated to the past.

The effect it had on the lives of ordinary Germans, particularly those in the communist East, is not lost on the team. The great strength of the play, Sanders believes, is the fact that it “looks at those left behind” by the triumph of the West.

“Of course, a play set largely in the eighties would not be complete without a killer soundtrack”

However, both Sanders and Pavlou are keen to make their own mark on the play. This is clear enough from the technical side of the performance, all of which falls under the expert hand of veteran technical director Hannah Burne. Perhaps most obvious of all is the decision to deploy a projector system throughout the performance.

“The projector is our way of using a different medium to show the passing of time,” Sanders explains. It is through this that the team are able to portray “everything from eighties commercials to actual footage of the Wall’s collapse”, as well as, naturally, “some genuine Soviet propaganda from the time”.

Of course, a play set largely in the eighties would not be complete without a killer soundtrack. Upon mention of this, Burne promptly produces a full eighties Spotify playlist, much of which has been assembled by a particularly proud Pavlou.

With an appropriate focus on German music, the play’s score includes such hits as Cold War classic ‘99 Luftballons’ by Nena and ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ by Austrian band Falco. However, as both Pavlou and Sanders point out, the music fulfils a similar role to the projector in marking time. As the brothers are dragged, for better or for worse, into the Western world, the soundtrack delves into the Americanised sound of Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Sasha Gibson as Karl and Anna Scholes as Franz, in rehearsal for Over There.

However, the room for personal interpretation is not limited to the play’s technical side. The intensity of a play with only two characters creates a great deal of opportunity for the cast to explore their roles and the powerful relationship between them. Sasha Gibson (Karl, the Eastern brother) and Anna Scholes (Franz, from the West) have both been acting at the NNT for several years, but accepted that this has been one of their most demanding productions to date.

“It was a massive challenge, especially as there were only two parts,” explains Gibson. “In a play lasting an hour and twenty minutes, you effectively have forty minutes of dialogue each.”

There is also the issue of timing. As Scholes points out, they were only cast two and a half weeks ago. For such prolific actors, however, this came as no shock. “If you sign up for the first slot in the season, you know it will be intense,” admits Scholes.

Both found themselves drawn in by the unusual task of portraying so torturous a relationship as that of Karl and Franz. As Scholes puts it: “I thought it was a very interesting idea to look at the separation of twins. It’s almost like a kind of social experiment”.

Gibson agrees, noting the significance of the “heavy political undertones and very metaphorical message” of the brothers’ story. For two actors more used to comic work (including The Toyland Murders and DEAD: A Musical), a family drama based around historical metaphor is quite a switch.

“The New Theatre’s in-house season is going to have one hell of an opening”

Of course, the production also takes the interesting (and artistically refreshing) angle of casting female actors in male roles. But as Sanders and Pavlou explain, this is not a play about gender, nor about the masculinity of brotherhood. What Over There draws upon is the connection between the characters and how it reflects events in the wider world. It sets out to teach the audience what it means to be German, particularly East German, at a time when your entire idea of society is crashing down around you.

Gibson puts this into perspective: “I didn’t know much about the Berlin Wall beforehand, but this has taught me a lot. If I found it interesting to learn about what happened in Germany, I hope the audience will too”.

Over There is an ambitious play for students to take on. But with the undeniable enthusiasm and experience being thrown into this project, one can’t help but feel that the New Theatre’s in-house season is going to have one hell of an opening.

Over There is on at the Nottingham New Theatre 1-5 November 2017.

Sam Young

Play poster courtesy of the Nottingham New Theatre.

Rehearsal image courtesy of Sam Young.

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