There are many politically dangerous assertions made in Hobo Theatre’s Heaven in Berlin, but the most astounding one stems from the closing scene. As it turns out, Ida, an artist made cleaner/spy by the Stasi, has been dead since the intermission but, angelic as she is, has decided to hang about and bring peace to the other characters; this entails leading a terminally ill English rock star turned East Berlin immigrant to the Wall, where he will undoubtedly be shot by the safekeepers of the Cold War, but in the process transported to heaven. In the vicinity of the Berlin Wall, heaven – the other side that is – becomes a transparent placard for the West, where rock and roll and Coca-Cola are presumably served in unlimited quantities, and no one is ever terminally ill, involved in a family feud, let alone politically persecuted.
There’s not much in Heaven in Berlin, written by Ciaran McConville and directed by Jamie Harper, to suggest this kind of retro-reactionary attitude is projected on purpose; on the contrary it gives a distinct impression of being a direct result of mild ignorance and a seemingly nonchalant decision to focus on mid 80’s East Berlin. While everyone might have a general idea of the horrors in the GDR, basing a show on these assumptions results in dumbing down one of the most fascinating (if tragic) narratives in Europe’s recent history to a plot so naive, it’s hard to imagine why it took so much work and effort to tear the bloody wall down. Sweeping generalisations are reflected through the characters, starting from Ida – a symbol of the opposition, so naturally an artist, now forbidden from coming close to art (literally), but not a particularly good spy or indeed cleaner. Brian, the aforementioned rock star is a Westerner who messed up his life so badly he decided to hide where no one dares look. His girlfriend is an original East-Berlin opportunist who will defect, leaving Brian with her violin prodigy daughter (because sometimes a beautiful flower grows even through the depression of concrete). In summary: the Westerner, albeit rough around the edges, is a nice guy, ready to take a plunge for someone else’s child, forgiven for abandoning his own since he’s about to die, while the only local adult not in trouble with the powers that be is selfish, reckless and only in it for the visa. The Stasi obviously have not earned their reputation if they can’t keep Ida, with apparently no family or friends who care about her, under control; one look at their representative in the play confirms this – deprived of power, he resolves to pointless shouting at all times. The site-specific location, Testbed1, a rough, former industrial space, serves to identify just how dark, depressing and lifeless East Berlin was. It remains to be seen what David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who resided in West Berlin in the 70’s, and Klaus Nomi, who spent most of his career in New York, are trying to achieve, as they insert bits of their songs throughout the show.
Although claiming to take inspiration from the Tempest, Heaven in Berlin is more openly reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin – but where the German film dwells into human isolation that seems only too natural in a city that’s essentially an island surrounded by unfriendly waters, Hobo Theatre appropriates scattered bits of its plot (and the title), without much consideration of how this appropriation inverts the original. Wenders’ actual angels, protected and immortal, have to endure through personal and political histories evolving, without ever helping out or feeling anything; McConville’s angel is a metaphor who intervenes, and when she eventually sets herself on fire in front of Brian during his big concert, she is not so much a Jan Palach figure as a worryingly sadistic torturer. Coincidence or not, yet this show also reads like a small scale version of Adam Curtis vs Massive Attack, a piece that is set in a much larger, but almost identical space – used not to illustrate the elusive atmosphere of a different time, but to shove the audience around like cattle, confront them with blasting sound and images and generally make a point that there is no escape. Curtis and Hobo Theatre both touch on the place of music in Western and Eastern blocs, but while the former shows how USSR punk and Seattle grunge alike stemmed from oppression, albeit of very different kinds, the latter delivers a 5 minute digression on how the GDR occasionally programmed a bit of r’n’r to appease the nation, to disastrous but not publically relevant consequences. It’s safe to say both Bruce Springsteen and David Hasselhoff would very much disagree with that assertion, but it also goes to show how just how little effort went into treating East Berlin like anything more than a catchphrase epoche, with little political bearing in the present. This play choses a very specific historical moment and then signposts it as a time with no connection to anything happening outside the theatre today – and that puts Heaven in Berlin into a very difficult position.