“What will we do while we are still free to do it?” Cassie Tongue on Daniel Schlusser’s remarkable adaptation of Christa Wolf’s novel They Divided the Sky
When Christa Wolf wrote her novel Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven) in 1963 she was navigating a new German reality. The country, still reeling from the Second World War and the Holocaust, was now cloven in two by the Berlin Wall. She was writing for a country unsettled, and through her unsettled text, she gave them solace and solidarity: the unease was communal.
When Rita and Manfred – her novel’s two protagonists – meet, however, the wall is not yet built. They are caught up in a time of change and caught up in each other. This mutable, critical time period also opens They Divided the Sky, Daniel Schlusser’s new theatre work for Belvoir’s 25A independent season, movingly explored in the tiny Downstairs Theatre.
Rita (Nikki Shiels) and Manfred (Stephen Phillips) enter the space, burbling with nervous, pent-up excitement and easy laughter; they fill the air with the bashful, flirty play of a new love affair, and we’re all so close to each other it’s like we’re all in love for the first time. It’s irresistible. Their repartee is textured by big-sky dreams, political discussions, arguments, and experimentations. The worst has happened in Germany – so now, perhaps, anything is possible.
As their love grows, those early political stances become definitive, both feature and obstacle to their easy, starry-eyed relationship. Manfred is a chemist, stoic and pragmatic. Rita is still discovering her path in life, but she is truly energised by the new socialism of East Berlin; work becomes meaningful to her. She plans to become a teacher, but decides to learn the reality of manual labour first, by building window panes for trains. It’s hard, and physical, and exhausting, but she can point to something tangible and claim it not just her own, but for everyone.
Manfred is not so easily converted. He has stared closely into the truth of the evil men can create – members of his family were Nazis (and still are at heart) and he was recruited into the Hitler youth – and now isn’t so sure that one ideology is better than another. When Nazi propaganda was removed from his schoolroom, he explains, art and new socialism were passed right over the top, ill-fitting in old frames, without explanation. Another national costume.
But Rita and Manfred are in love, and for a while, that seems like enough. But we already know that love is easily thwarted by larger forces beyond our control. And nothing can loom ominously larger for this couple, both in stature and meaning, than the Berlin Wall.
This is a 70 minute work that expands and contracts to fill the space of a few years, but also that of a deep political, social rift. That the evolution of a relationship and the changing course of a nation are paralleled is natural; what are people but tiny nations, negotiating their terms of allyships with their neighbors, friends, and loved ones?
The novel is written in defiance of linear time; rather, it’s structured in fragments and flashbacks, and Daniel Schlusser’s new theatrical adaptation honours that lateral, linked approach – especially through James Paul’s thoughtful, heart-pounding sound design.
A cassette tape rewinds or fast-forwards, something breaks, and the scenes shift accordingly. Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting indicates a tonal lurch before the actors land it, so we can brace ourselves accordingly. Her palette favours cold blues and a swathe of oranges; day and night, hope and resignation, passion and fear.
In Schlusser’s play, and in this intimate playing space, there is no construction of that looming Wall. Robert Cousins’ set is almost bare – there’s only a bath, slowly filling with water. The water is malleable and hopeful; both catharsis and drowning, reassuring and deadly. It takes Manfred first, this force, but it isn’t long before Rita is in it too, drenched and squeezing the excess out of her clothing. Is there anything so inevitable as returning to water?
There’s an extraordinary empathy in Schlusser’s adaptation and particularly his direction, especially when it comes to Rita – this play treats her with a gentleness that indicates it believes in her belief for a better world through the socialist revolution and care for each other over objects. It’s Rita that reaches out to Manfred and so too to us, her thoughts in the novel replaced and honored by Shiels’ sensitive, unguarded performance. Her journey is written in the slowly-unravelling knot of her hair, in the way her hands smooth down or tangle in her skirt. Shiels’ Rita is open-hearted and open-faced; there’s a ready warmth and unself-consciousness to her performance that makes her easy to love.
As Manfred, Phillips is rightly complicated: he’s charming and recognisably rakish – of course this man attracted Rita’s attention with shirtless outdoor bathing – but he is also suspicious, and of a great many things: of other men, and politics, and work without reward. And, sometimes, of Rita.
In one moment, the fourth wall is shattered. Manfred and Rita’s engagement lingers without a wedding in sight, and Rita becomes Shiels. She asks Phillips – she calls him Stephen – how long he has been engaged; his answer, she decides wryly, lets Manfred – at least a little – off the hook. We’re all in this moment together.
When Manfred defects to the West, it’s so he can stop caring and working quite so much. Here he can eat, take a walk, stop to breathe – to be free from a national burden he was never asked to carry. We know that impulse. It’s the escapist, avoidant side of our current self-care movement, when a ‘head in the sand’ approach to atrocity and injustice is easier, and can be argued successfully as preferable, to engagement and resistance.
At one moment, they discuss this tension. They say they thought they had discovered the root of all evil, but evil has so many roots.
This is part of the reason why They Divided the Sky is in such urgent and profound conversation with us. It is near impossible to hear those words in 2018 and not feel a deep, nagging pang of recognition. The action plays out on the stolen land of the Gadigal people; offshore this nation, refugees are held like prisoners and dying; our military raise Nazi flags overseas; black families continue to be shattered by forced removal of children and alarming and unfair rates of incarceration – this list could be endless.
We are Rita and Manfred, and we could split into two very different paths. We can cling to the relief and simplicity of the capitalist machine, we can seek out a status quo that gives us wealth and reward. Or we can try to stand for difficult, often intangible new ways of being, where assets are shared instead of hoarded, injustices fought instead of ignored.
We have a choice. Rita and Manfred had a Wall.
What will we do while we are still free to do it?
They Divided The Sky, from the novel by Christa Wolf, adapted and directed by Daniel Schlusser. Designed by Robert Cousins, costumes by Mel Page, lighting design by Amelia Lever-Davidson, sound design by James Paul. Performed by Stephen Phillips and Nikki Shiels. Belvoir St Theatre 25A until June 30. Bookings
Belvoir St Theatre can accommodate patrons in wheelchairs and also their guests. Please book ahead and let Box Office know of any special needs so we can ensure that you are looked after. There is lift access to all levels. Belvoir St accepts Companion Cards.