German playwright Dea Loher is one of the most produced and celebrated playwrights on the European continent but her work is mostly unknown in the UK. Though Stranger’s Room was produced as part of the Royal Court’s New European Writers Season back in 1997, it has only been in the last four years that her plays have started to pop up on the Fringe, indicative of a voracious appetite for exploring international work among a new generation of theatre artists. There was Land without Words at the Edinburgh Festival in 2009, Innocence at the Arcola in 2010 and now this from Speaking with Tongues: the UK premiere of Loher’s first play from 1991.
It’s a biographical piece based on the life of Olga BenÃ¡rio, a German-Jewish Communist who had a love affair with the Brazilian revolutionary Luis Carlos Prestes in the late 1930s. They went on the run in Brazil together and Olga was arrested while pregnant with Prestes’s child. There was a campaign to save her from being extradited to Germany on the grounds that her child would be a Brazilian citizen but this was unsuccessful. BenÃ¡rio was killed in a German concentration camp and her daughter was sent to live with relatives.
The play introduces us to BenÃ¡rio (Bethan Clark) alone in her cell trying to piece together the events of her life and talking to herself out loud, so that she won’t go insane. She makes markings on the floor in chalk, in order to keep things in order in her mind. We then move back in time to another prison cell, this time in Brazil at the point where her life might have been saved, had the campaign for her to remain in the country been successful. She has two cellmates: Genny, who she has a maternal relationship with, and Ana Libre, who accuses BenÃ¡rio of denouncing her to the authorities.
A large portion of the play consists of BenÃ¡rio’s encounters with Filinto MÃ¼ller (Pete Collis). MÃ¼ller was then President of the Senate in Brazil and though he was sympathetic with Nazi Germany and advocated large-scale torture, it seems likely Loher is exercising a degree of poetic license in having him actually directly involved in interrogating and torturing BenÃ¡rio. We also see him torturing Ana Libre in order to extract information from her about her revolutionary boyfriend Eugenio. Such is the strength of BenÃ¡rio’s will that she manages to turn the table on MÃ¼ller and force him to confront how damaging the violence he inflicts on others has been to his own twisted psyche. We watch him destroy Ana Libre entirely and, while he cannot break Olga, even a will as powerful as hers can’t save her from her inevitable fate. Even if he can’t break her, she will be destroyed.
At one point, the fellow prisoners prevent MÃ¼ller from taking BenÃ¡rio away by threatening a riot but, as she tells her cell-mates, he’ll just be cleverer next time. These small acts of rebellion make no difference in the end. The depiction of these women as ultimately powerless, lacking any agency over their fate despite their fortitude may be true to life but it makes Olga’s Room a punishing and bleak experience. You couldn’t describe it as entertaining but it doesn’t really shine a new light on the processes it represents on stage either (or at least not in Samuel Miller’s literal production): political oppression, violence against women and torture.
Despite Loher’s beautiful writing and Clark’s impressive central performance, it’s hard to escape the fact that we are essentially seeing a series of clichÃ©s presented. The play rarely surprises the audience. It hints at the promise Loher demonstrated at the very beginning of her career but it seems a pity, when British audiences are only just starting to discover this writer’s work, that we are not getting to see her at the top of her game.