A WOMAN IN BERLIN
The Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne
16 - 28 November 2010
Old Fitzroy Theatre, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Sydney
Adapted by Janice Muller and Meredith Penman
Performed by Meredith Penman
Directed by Janice Muller
Stage Design: Gabrielle Logan and Janice Muller
Lighting Design: Matt Cox
Composition & Sound design: Russell Goldsmith
April, 1945.The war is rolling towards Berlin. These are strange times. History experienced first-hand, the stuff of tales untold and songs unsung. But seen up close - history is much more troublesome, nothing but burdens and fears." Anonymous
“a powerful story, powerfully told” The Age
“an intelligent judicious performance” SMH
One of the most important personal accounts of war and defeat ever written. Antony Beevor
Recorded for Airplay, Radio National.
Winner 3rd prize, 2012 New York Radio Awards.
Meredith Penman gives one of the performances of the year in this theatrical account of survival during the 1945 Russian occupation of Berlin. In this intelligent adaptation. The Australian.
Reviewer: John Bailey
The use of rape as an instrument of terror and retribution in wartime is one of the monstrosities rarely mentioned in cold military histories. That this one-woman show addressing the same topic does so in an equally cool, clinical way only adds to its potency. Meredith Penman is a remarkably controlled performer and in adapting, with Janice muller, the first-hand account of a World War II survivor who underwent such atrocities shows a precise understanding of the complexities involved in presenting horror without alienating an audience. Playing witness to history as much as re-enacting it, this is a first-rate stuff showcasing enviable talent.
THEATRE NOTES blog
Alison Croggon, Monday, November 22, 2010
Review: A Woman in Berlin, Irony Is Not Enough, The Tell-Tale Heart
I saw three astonishing works of theatre last week, all created from texts not originally intended for the stage. .....
To claim that A Woman in Berlin is a confronting text is to state the obvious. To begin with, it's a personal memoir, a vexed form that often sparks fierce battles about its authenticity. A diary of two months of the Russian occupation of Berlin in 1945, it gives a detailed first-hand account of the experiences of a young, "well brought up" woman attempting to survive in the city in the final days of World War 2. It is, above all, a dispassionate account of survival - pages are devoted to the urgent task of finding enough food and fuel to sustain life. But the most sensational - and deeply contested - aspect of the book is its account of rape by the Russian troops.
Historians give differing estimates of how many women were raped during the occupation - some say at least 100,000, others say up to two million. The troops that arrived were bent on revenge. Hitler's invasion of Russia is generally agreed to be the bloodiest war in history; by the end of World War 2, 30 million people had been killed on the Eastern Front. The orgy of destruction that took place in Berlin was one of the final atrocities of the war.
The anonymous author was named in 2003 by literary critic Jens Bisky as Marta Hillers, an educated and well-travelled journalist who had written some small-time propaganda for the Nazis, but was probably not a member of the party herself. She was in her early 30s when the Russian stormed Berlin. The book was initially released in 1954, when there was little interest in Germany (or elsewhere) in examining the suffering of Germans, the aggressors in history's most ruinous war; and the author herself refused to republish it. But in the early years of this decade, there was renewed interest: publications such as W.G. Sebald's A Natural History of Destruction, or Anthony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin, began to expose a history that had been hidden by shame or trauma.
Unsurprisingly, rape is the centre of the book's controversy. Anonymous's account - especially her semi-romantic, almost tender relationship with a Russian major, with its hints of treacherous collaboration with the enemy - was considered to have smirched the honour of German women, and the truthfulness or otherwise of the book has been fiercely contested. It's a text with literary qualities by a clearly literate woman; the original writings were retyped and expanded for publication. Paradoxically, the more literary it appeared, the less reliable it was assumed to be. The poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who republished it in 2000, demanded that it be seen as a strictly documentary source, a work of absolute historical truth, and historian Anthony Beevor validates its historical authenticity.
For all that, perhaps the most illuminating analysis is of the book as a literary work, because that is how it represents itself, complete with a epigraph from A Winter's Tale. Above all, the diary recounts the struggle to survive as an entire world is destroyed: a city breaks down under war, cutting off food supplies, electricity, all public services; and with it comes the collapse of all moral and social certainty. The most graphic symptom of that collapse is the transformation of the women in the book into into casual sexual prey.
The book is in part not just about rape, but its representation. "What does it mean—rape?," Anonymous asks herself. "When I said the word for the first time aloud ... it sent shivers down my spine. Now I can think it and write it with an untrembling hand, say it out loud to get used to hearing it said. It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything—but it’s not." The women in the book, and even the soldiers who rape them, whose relatives had been raped by Germans, oscillate between an understanding of rape as "worse than death" and a brutalised jokiness that is perhaps more confronting than any other aspect of the book. Anonymous's dispassionate observations make the line between victim and aggressor extremely unstable: at one point she even claims that Berlin's ordeal "balanced an account", extracting from the Germans some of the suffering they had dealt others.
Given these complexities, it would be misleading and reductive to present this text as a simple story of victimhood. It would be even more perilous to assume an immediate empathy with this young woman and the atrocities she suffered and witnessed; that would risk a kind of emotional pornography, an exploitative sensationalism. Instead, just as the diary is a literary imagining of real events, director Janice Muller and performer Meredith Penman frame A Woman in Berlin consciously as a work of art. Penman's performance permits us to witness an act of imaginative identification that shifts from the present to an evocation of the past.
The set appears to be an exhibition about the conquest of Berlin, with text and mementos on the white walls and a gallery bench in the centre. A young contemporary woman enters, wandering casually from item to item. She idly presses a button and listens to an audio in German. She earnestly contemplates a picture. She is any of us, peering from the outside into an atrocity we can barely understand. Then she drops her leather jacket, and her dress is subtly changed: she is no longer of the 21st century. She begins to speak extracts from the diary.
This is an extraordinarily powerful performance. Much of its power emerges from its intelligent restraint: it is only when it finishes that its trauma really registers. Penman presents a woman brutalised by her experience, not only of rape, but of the bare struggle to survive; the self she once knew - cultured, middle class, safe - splinters under the deprivations of war. She witnesses and reports, not only on what she sees, but on her own feelings: her observing, writing self is the single coherent element of a world reduced to madness.
In the end, all that matters is that she lives. Her survival is not triumphant, but a bitter, self-knowing will that recognises the shame of "naked life", as all the markers of civilisation are stripped away to a bare play of power: an animal instinct that overpowers every other consideration. We know that knowledge is now imprinted on her body and will never be undone: it is now part of who she is.
Then, just as the audience does, Penman transforms back into the young contemporary woman, picks up her jacket and walks out of the gallery.
by JEREMY WILLIAMS on Nov 21, 2010
A great actor can make a lacklustre script seem like Shakespeare, so when a great actor is given a mind blowing script the results are indescribable. Equally a great actor needs no set to transport an audience to another time and place, yet when they are provided the tools they use them to stunning effect. Meredith Penman is without any question of a doubt an amazing actress. Every gesture and uttering commands attention. Thus her lead performance in the harrowing yet at times strangely uplifting A Woman in Berlin is beyond encapsulating.
Based on the German book Eine Frau in Berlin, published anonymously in 1954, A Woman in Berlin has been skilfully adapted for the stage by Penman alongside director Janice Muller. Having debuted at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Hotel in 2009, the Malthouse’s intimate Tower is the perfect setting for the powerful piece, with maximum impact caused by the audience’s close proximity.
A Woman in Berlin is the brutally honest account of a the final days of WWII from the perspective of a pretty, blonde, pale German woman. With Berlin surrounded by approaching Russians, the anonymous woman is disillusioned by her situation and repulsed by the idiocy of man. As the Russian army take control, the soldiers are insistent upon wreaking revenge with acts of sexual depravity on German soldiers’ wives, sisters and daughters, and our subject is easy prey.
Gabrielle Logan’s minimalist set and costumes never interfered with Penman’s performance. Using the space to the best of her ability, Logan has meshed diary extracts in a museum setting with elements of wartime Germany. Her effective use of space was aided no end by Matt Cox’s eerie lighting design and Russell Goldsmith’s subtle sound design.
Having stayed true to the diary format of Eine Frau In Berlin, Penman and Muller’s adaptation fuses German and English to good effect, allowing a smooth transition between time periods.
A Woman In Berlin is edge of the seat viewing, which is beyond impressive for a 65 minute, one-woman show. Making effective use of the light and dark of the original text, the production has the audience captivated from the moment they enter the theatre. Great theatre stuns to silence and not a word was uttered as the audience came back to reality as they left the Tower.
Photo: Andy Baker
Original Production. 2009
Tamarama Rock Surfers Season at The Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney
Photography: Nick Bowers
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Reviewed by Jason Blake, August 28, 2009
Old Fitzroy, August 26
Until September 5
EINE FRAU IN BERLIN is the diary of a woman, 34, who records in unstinting detail her experience of the fall of Berlin in April 1945. Published anonymously in the 1950s, its frankness appalled German readers, and the book quickly went out of print. During reconstruction few were ready to acknowledge what had happened when the Red Army punched its way through the last of the German lines and into the capital: the rape of more than 100,000 women.
Her account is unsentimental and unsparing. Repeatedly attacked by the ''Ivans'', the diarist, a journalist who speaks some Russian, decides, in the interests of self-preservation, to secure the favours of an officer, ''a lone wolf''. This way, she hopes, she will be protected from the predations of the lower ranks. She is, but not completely.
''A stranger's hands expertly pulling apart my jaw,'' she writes. ''Then with great deliberation he drops a gob of gathered spit into my mouth.''
Meanwhile, the other women on her block are doing whatever it takes to survive. Some do not. There are many suicides.
Janice Muller and Meredith Penman's stage adaptation compresses the account into a taut, 60-minute monologue. The woman, played by Penman, is dressed in period clothing but occupies a chic contemporary museum/war memorial space (designed by Gabrielle Logan). She is a figure from the past but very much in - and speaking of - the present. The ruination and the fear is conjured primarily by the author, but is strikingly amplified by the lighting designer, Matt Cox and the composer, Russell Goldsmith.A Woman in Berlin is succinct - overly so, perhaps - but a persuasive portrait emerges nevertheless, thanks to the clarity (and gallows humour) of the raw material and Penman's intelligent, judiciously emotional performance.
Re-worked production, presented at The Malthouse Theatre Melbourne, 2010
Photography: Lachlan Wood
2 minute edited excerpt
Filmed by Justin Bachelor
Extended edited excerpt
Filmed by Justin Bachelor