1947 seems incredibly soon after end of the second world war for Hans Fallada’s novel Jeder stirbt für sich allein (Every Man Dies Alone) to be published, yet this story garnered critical acclaim nonetheless. The novel’s been widely received as a compelling and realistic portrayal of life under the rule of Nazi Germany, and is based on a true story of an ordinary couple who took up small acts of resistance. Fallada’s novel is an adaptation, it’s bound to be different: he adds, amongst other details, some drama in the married couple dying apart from one another- one in an airstrike. Alistair Beaton’s adaptation and translation also deviates a little from the novel, in that constantly mutating quality of adaptation.
James Dacre’s design continually projects the page to the stage in a very literal sense. Using graphic art from Jason Lutes’ book Berlin, the Quangels’ cramped apartment frequently is projected with scenes of rallies and air raids- the monstrosities of war which by 1945 have become commonplace in the city. Dacre also projects the words of Otto and Anna Quangel’s propaganda postcards across the walls, allowing us to contemplate on the larger ripples of their words on the wider world.
There’s also an incredibly striking incident of Berlin intruding upon the apartment, when the city’s Golden Elsie (Jessie Walker) statue comes to life and steps into our world dressed not in golden finery, but a crisp white shirt. The technical impressiveness this visual contains is enough to make you check the programme in case you’ve stumbled into a production of A Winter’s Tale. The look of Alone in Berlin is really stunning, a study in claustrophobia that brings the Quangels’ home, and their situation, uncomfortably close to the audience. There are subtleties in the set which the script really doesn’t do justice.
Back to the question of adaptation. The act of translating a novel to stage brings time constraints and a wider audience to appeal to. It’s bound to lose a few nuances on the way, perhaps, but Beaton’s script feels blunt to the point of distraction. Otto and Anna’s accusations that one another had initially voted for Hitler culminate in practically crying out, “but the war is bad!” It feels at odds with the performances. Charlotte Emmerson’s performance falls along the Emily Mortimer-Emily Watson scale of Serious Emily Types. Her Anna is presented as meek, but the hunch of her shoulders and her tendency to look at the floor betray a fierce sadness. It gives her the strength to talk back to her sometime bully of a husband (Denis Conway). However, introduce the inclusion of her sniping one-liners to Otto which feel more at home in an American sitcom, and her character’s undermined by these moments of misplaced humour.
The lack of subtlety is felt most keenly when Elsie transports us between scenes. The show’s premise is that the statue has overlooked the city and wants to relay Otto and Anna’s tale of bravery, interspersed with reluctant Gestapo officer Escherich’s (Joseph Marcell) investigation of the postcards. Marcell again is a quietly feeling actor. We see Escherich’s actions become more and more stalled, the man torn between doing his job and running away. Elsie takes the stage afterwards, singing “he’s just a policeman/he does his job”. It strips the preceding scene of its feeling, and Elsie’s interjections continue to do this. The result is a somewhat turgid show which writes its subtext as large as the Quangel’s postcard messages. There’s no time to contemplate the moral quandary at the centre of Alone in Berlin when the ethics are spelled out so forcefully. It’s a shame, because there is the making of a good show between the lines.
Alone in Berlin plays at York Theatre Royal until 21st March, then runs at Oxford Playhouse until 28th March. More info here.