Casting, theater insiders say, is everything. Never has that been truer than in “Over There.” Hiring real-life identical twins to play brothers separated since childhood by the Berlin Wall makes Mark Ravenhill’s play peculiarly watchable. No matter that the work examines the characters’ differences; audiences are voyeuristically glued to the actors’ similarities. But although casting initially ignites the text, it’s not enough to sustain its fitful drama.
The premise is arresting. Karl (Luke Treadaway) and Franz (Harry Treadaway) are brothers symbolizing a city and an ideological world divided into East and West. In chilly, bizarre scenes of strikingly spare dialogue, Ravenhill deftly conjures a succession of meetings between the men over five years — before, during and after the fall of the Wall.
At first, the twins discover a shared sensibility, but the changing political context brings out opposing beliefs. East Berliner Karl initially revels in the capitalist paradise of West Berlin but comes to resent Western debased values. Franz starts out with generous impulses towards his long-lost sibling, but is unwilling to surrender control and power.
The emblematic presentation of opposing political systems is exemplified as much by the play’s avowedly self-conscious form as its content. It’s further underlined by Ravenhill and Ramin Gray’s austere production.
“Over There” uses designer Johannes Schutz’s featureless, pale gray box that also housed “The Stone,” the previous play in the Royal Court’s Germany season. A pileup of packaging lined up along the back wall provides not just a commentary on Western values but also symbolic props in a world from which naturalism has been banished. A teetering pile of boxes topples over to represent the Wall and a bath sponge serves as Franz’s young son.
This supplies a droll humor to the proceedings in which the brothers finish each others’ sentences and/or speak in tandem. But despite a running time of a little more than an hour, the writing soon begins to feel strained, especially to the Royal Court’s theatrically literate audience, many of whom may feel they’ve been here before.
Indeed, they have. The play owes a vast debt to Caryl Churchill, one of Ravenhill’s idols and the nearest the Court has to a house dramatist. The conceit of two nations epitomized via a relationship was first aired in her “Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?,” while the initially elliptical, clipped, interrogative nature of intimate exchanges recalls her “A Number.”
Similarly, the taboo-busting, gruesome/tender penultimate sequence in which Franz literally and metaphorically consumes his brother is indebted to “Cleansed,” a play of even more rigorously controlled image structure by the late Court dramatist Sarah Kane. The derivative nature of Ravenhill’s writing here robs it of lasting impact.
Several local critics have complained that the play’s attack on Western values is the result of an almost irresponsible level of sentimentality with regard to the values of the fallen Communist East. The play certainly fits that argument although, in Ravenhill’s defense, it is intentionally closer to a bold-statement contemporary art installation than a traditionally argued drama. However, even an ideal cast cannot compensate for the baldness of the play’s ideas.