Whilst out shopping in an unnamed German town, Karla Richter goes missing. Her flatmate and friend, her boyfriend Vlado, and her sister Sophia (known as I, He and She in the text) are in despair.
The days pass. Fünften Tag. Zehnten Tag. Zwanzigsten Tag.
Fear of the press and discrimination by the German authorities towards Vlado, force the trio to look for Karla themselves. Her bag is sighted in the ghettoised Russian Quarter. They pay it a visit. Exhausted by their efforts and days of waiting, they sit in their flat reminiscing. Other subplots are revealed, whilst around Vlado and around us, the ice is cracking. The abyss is opening up and we are lurching ever deeper into something emotional and uncontrollable.
The disappearance narrative helps give shape and form to German born playwright Maria Milisavljevic’s stream of consciousness style of writing. We soon come to realise we are here to excavate Vlado’s traumatic past, present and probable future: to understand the complication that arises for a Yugoslavian living in Germany haunted by his own ‘fires’ and memories of war. At the beginning we see Vlado rubbing his knife against his trousered thigh as if in mock self harm. The facts of his past are not made overt – in German Theatre anything can happen and Maria Milisavljevic does not make it easy on us. As in Sarah Kane’s Crave, she constructs a mosaic of feeling. The narration switches between the first and third person as the three actors stand on Lucy Sierra’s bare stage which evokes the world of Nis Randers, a popular German ballad about a raging sea storm by Otto Ernst, and to which the playwright and Vlado continually refer in much the same way as Sarah Kane used The Wasteland – as a way of expressing that which can no longer be given a name. As this continues we become more entwined with the inner lives and histories of the characters onstage.
If the writing refuses to explain, trusting its audience, so does its staging. In Jacqui Honess-Martin’s production acrobatic movement expresses internal feelings, the stark table serves as a raft to which all the characters cling, but it also becomes a butchering slab where a man is almost murdered and where a rabbit, brought up by the two sisters, is unceremoniously slaughtered by their Grandfather, dissected and made into soup. Animals learn to trust. Humans inherently do but have it taken away from them.
Before arriving in the UK, Abyss went through some development in Canada where more traditional narrative elements were added, the playwright translating her own work herself. This version has kept the inciting incident and some exposition, although we don’t get it until near the end and we feel we are closer to the original version still playing in rep at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. Any shock value is given emotional depth- Maria Milisavljevic builds Vlado up so we understand his near fits of violence, we can empathise and, like in the imagined deep seas Vlado dives into with I, we can find our catharsis. The play’s narrative gaps or lack of explanation allows an audience to fill in, to bring their emotional experience as the search for Karla is hampered by Vlado’s own psychological problems.
The playwright describes herself as an intuitive writer, although she is tempered by a little North American tradition. But the result is a poetical exploration of feeling and a study of language abstracted from its everyday uses. In turn, performers Nicola Kavanagh, Iain Batchelor and Jennifer English portray detached characters with hard crystallised feelings explored through Anna Morrisey’s movement. The play creaks, lulls and rolls in the surf or Brandung (its German title) as much as Tom Middleton’s haunting sound design suggests, and one feels the fissures widening, the water seeping in on a stage where Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn’s light flashes like beams from a lighthouse.
What this production achieves is an understanding of the non understandable, the untranslatable, the horrors of war, of loss, of PTSD, illuminated through the poetical to such an extent we can judge its aptness, yet not give it a name. For all its hidden meanings and haphazard structure it is sublime, poetical story telling.