If you are going to stage a romantic thriller do it in the Sumner; better still, film, and turn it digital. The intimate confines of the Southbank theatre, not least our screen constraints, are perfectly suited for the sort of dangerous, intriguing, and sexy interplay that pheromonal busyness often engenders. And the blistering performances in Iain Sinclair’s production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s play rivet your eyes on the action, as history and philosophy and emotions converge with devastating consequences.
The sexually-attracted pair are Tom (Michael Wahr) and Charlotte (Grace Cummings). He is an Australian law-school dropout newly arrived in Berlin to find himself. She is a published poet who works in a bar, where this night Tom issues carnal signals in her direction.
Despite an initial lukewarm response Charlotte invites the lonesome stranger into her loft apartment that, sensual in Christina Smith’s set design, is where we meet them. They drink beer and flirt and recite poetry: “I want my conscience to be true before you,” repeats Tom, after his female companion, as she reels off Rilke halfway up the stairs to her resting-lair. In a heart-to-heart moment, there is a touching exchange of tragic stories in each of their lives, which leads to an exploration into some pretty fascinating metaphysical concepts.
Following a night of heady passion, though, a series of mysterious calls to Tom’s cellphone, and to the lodging’s intercom system — plus his frantic urgings for her to flee overseas with him — raise Charlotte’s suspicion. As she probes and he evades, they find themselves over the course of the drama debating the political and socio-cultural legacy of Germany’s troubled past. Should the nation be in a permanent state of contrition? Does this perpetual remembering not mean murdering the victims again and again? When will the quest for justice end? The stronger her polemic, however, the farther Charlotte’s new beau seems to pull away.
As always, Murray-Smith’s writing is fabulous: fast, ferocious, and at times brilliantly funny. What holds it back is the implausibility of the plot that, after starting out in the most credible way, twists, then descends into the unconvincing. It feels like an elaborate device to play out the writer’s own thoughtful, unanswered, inquiry. But the acting is first-rate and highly charged. With the chemistry scorching between them, Cummings’ Charlotte is seductive one moment, and distraught incredulity the next, while Wahr gives Tom a memorable journey. Ultimately, Berlin is a work that provides us with fine fodder upon which to chew during this period of isolation and struggle.