Over There by Mark Ravenhill

Mark Ravenhill’s Over There ran recently at the Royal Court throughout March, directed by Ravenhill himself and Ramin Gray as part of the ‘Off The Wall’ project; celebrating twenty years passing since the fall of the Berlin wall. I however, watched the production last night for the very first time, from the comfort of my living room. Over There is my first experience of the Digital Theatre’s push towards a digitalisation of theatre productions: shows are filmed, and stored in an online library, where viewers who have registered can pay to download their chosen plays and watch. The online programme works similarly to that of a theatre itself, with productions completing a ‘run’ after a specific amount of time and the list of available shows therefore changes periodically.

On approaching the production, I actually find myself rather unsure in how to review this performance. Do I treat it as I would a film? Do I ignore the fact that it’s a recording altogether and focus solely on the production itself – the performances of Luke and Harry Treadaway as twins Franz and Karl, the set and stage design, the statements that Ravenhill makes in his script? I certainly don’t feel in a position to discuss it in accordance with other live productions that I’ve seen recently as for me, it appears in an entirely different context to anything else I’ve ever seen and I feel it should be treated as such. So I’ve decided to do exactly that.

Set in Germany, Over There depicts the relationship between twins Franz and Karl who have been separated since birth in an East/West Berlin divide. However, in 1989 when the wall is pulled down the brothers are no longer bound by checkpoint regulations and they find themselves free to wander in and out of each another’s lives. Ravenhill explores the dangers of this apparent freedom as Karl struggles to comply with the ways of the Western coloniser with devastating results.

There are two things that this production requires me to adjust to pretty sharpish: the fact that there are no apparent scene changes, and the use of dual dialogue. Brothers Mark and Harry Treadaway carry the entire sixty-minute production without a single exit. Changes in scene are simply indicated by key snippets that refer to time having moved on – with the very beginning ‘flash-forward’ scene acting as an exception. Ravenhill’s dialogue is incredibly choppy – with sentence upon sentence remaining unfinished. However, his choice to share an enormous amount of the dialogue between his two characters weaves an underlying current of anxiety into the performance: as words hang perilously in the air, there are countless ‘will he/won’t he’ moments before the sentence is completed by the other twin. Not that it’s necessary. I’m normally incredibly vocal about my hatred of dual dialogue (as more often than not it’s done badly) but I must admit, as I watch the two actors on stage pick up and drop each other’s words with sheer ease I am in awe of their on-stage partnership and concentration. Ravenhill’s use of this technique only emphasises the shifting relationship between the brothers who after finding themselves so in sync it borders on telepathic to begin with, find themselves speaking different languages (literally) by the play’s end. Ravenhill clearly knows a thing or four about relationships.

As a play, Over There quenches almost every one of my thirsts. The brotherly exchanges are seasoned with quick and witty humour that contrasts strongly with the sudden interjections of callousness from one brother to another. It’s a combination of Ravenhill’s dialogue and the Treadaway’s partnership that represents so well the sporadic love/hate sibling relationship that being a sister myself, I can certainly vouch for. The wonderful thing about Ravenhill is that he provides you with opportunities to view his characters as rounded individuals – the moments that depict Karl (Luke) in his lowest state, slathering himself with flour and ketchup provoke an extremely visceral response – yet he simultaneously plays with our ideas of ever really ‘knowing’ his characters. With snippets of dialogue, fired out between the two actors at a fast pace, I certainly found myself in a strange limbo; where although I’m affected by the situation of Franz and Karl, I don’t particularly care about them specifically as individuals. I’m not entirely sure why this is (could be the dual language thing again – I’m like a record with the needle stuck…) but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

I suppose that one of the reasons I have trouble investing in Ravenhill’s characters is the 2D format in which I meet them. I’m a child of the twenty-first century; I enjoy technology, and there are some truly valid reasons that make me enthusiastic about digital performance (anything that widens accessibility to the arts is surely a good thing?). Likewise however, there are some aspects of the idea that don’t quite sit right.

Throughout my watching Over There, it isn’t clear whether or not the performance is filmed in one take, or actually a montage of various performances. This is only due to the fact that although the breadth of the stage is filmed from time to time, the camera angles change frequently – much like in soap operas – so you get a sense of possible cutting and pasting of scenes. I also feel a little manipulated throughout the experience: at times the camera switches from character to character, and while this means that I don’t miss things like subtle reactions, I feel robbed of the opportunity for interpretation. I can’t decide whether I want to focus on Karl or Franz at any particular time because the decision has already made. The sceptic in me can’t help but get a little frustrated. Actors should have to work hard upon the stage to convey and likewise, audience members should work equally hard to extract meaning and draw their own conclusions from what they’re witnessing. They should be encourages to react to what they’re seeing. The prospect of having a camera zoom in and out for me, so that I may never miss any subtleties that require acute attention kind of makes me feel as if all the hard work is taken care of.

Although a thoroughly engaging experience, I won’t be substituting the live experience of theatre for downloadable versions just yet. Practically the idea of digitalisation is wonderful – I can only rave about the tool that this can provide for scholars or researchers such as myself, when our subject is usually so inconsistent – yet the role of the audience member shifts significantly once a camera takes on the role of ‘viewer’, and we are nudged into the background. Which is an irritating experience – no matter how liberated I may feel watching Ravenhill in my pyjamas.

This is the first of a series of reviews from the performances currently on Digital Theatre. For your chance to watch Over There right now on demand, head over to the Digital Theatre website. You can view other performances such as Parlour Song by Jez Butterworth, Kafka’s Monkey and the RSC’s Comedy of Errors. Check out DigitalTheatre.com