Pick a side: Schutzwall at Tête à Tête

Although opera is traditionally associated with grand narrative structures, sometimes its heightened psychological intensity can be remarkably effective at drawing us into an intimate historical moment, and just keeping us there a little while. Schutzwall tells the story of two sisters – Angelika Meyer (Mimi Doulton) and Suzanne Meyer (Ella Taylor) – suddenly separated by the Berlin Wall. The opera sees them meet at night in 1961, a month after the Wall’s construction, to discuss how the Wall has changed life for both of them, and whether they can safely be reunited in the West.  Rather than making political points about why the Wall came about, Schutzwall simply presents a human picture of its effect: a tense, occasionally funny, ultimately tragic conversation between these two sisters, exploring how it might have truly felt to be a human being in that situation through their shared memories, hopes, and fears.

On entering the RADA Theatre, we were encouraged to sit on one side or the other, not in the middle, to get the best view of the performance. RADA’s wide black stage, otherwise empty, was divided by a large, uncompromising chunk of pale wall across its centre. Thus, I found myself unexpectedly in West Germany, on the same side as Suzanne (Taylor), and, like her, entirely unable to see Angelika (Doulton) stranded on the East side of the Wall. This staging brilliantly plunges us into the human moment. At first, we can’t work out who is on the West side, who is on the East; clues come as Suzanne mentions Angelika’s office are keeping her job open for her, and Angelika in turn expresses her fear of the Stasi. Then realisation dawns that Angelika is planning an escape back to the West, an idea which fills her sister with paralysing fear and hope in equal measure. Hearing Angelika, without being able to see her, kept me in the same predicament as Suzanne throughout the piece; was she telling the truth when she said she was ok? A disembodied voice can lie convincingly; Ella Taylor conveyed Suzanne’s desperate anxiety as she tried to assess whether she could truly believe Angelika’s reassurances, and Mimi Doulton projected a brittle confidence which implied the danger of her own character’s situation. Doulton presented an outwardly determined Angelika whose courage was eventually shown to be the recklessness of utter despair, as she climbed the Wall only to be shot before ever reaching safety. Taylor’s Suzanne, moving from forced cheerfulness to thinly-veiled terror, was beautifully acted; screened in turn from her sister by the Wall, Taylor allowed Suzanne the luxury of expressive body language, communicating her anxiety and frustration whenever her voice fell silent.

Schutzwall Ella Taylor

Ella Taylor as Suzanne Meyer. Photography by Claire Shovelton

Jonathan Higgins’ soundscape includes captured and recorded sound (like rainfall, or the rumbling of trains) as well as glossing the singers’ voices at times with electronic echoes and shadowing through microphones. The sisters flit between song and speech as their conversation shuttles between a passionate concern for each other, hysterical reminiscences of childhood, and the banal details of everyday life (“How are you coping? …How’s Mum doing?”). The piece would feel more natural as a whole if microphones were not used, but the occasional echoing effects prompt questions in us: is this, in fact, a memory of a conversation, echoing through time? Or are certain sentences of this conversation penetrating, sinking deeply into their memories, because both know that it may well be their last?

As Angelika made her climactic escape attempt, I felt sick with fear; it was all the worse because, like Suzanne, I couldn’t see what was happening. The intensity of the paranoia created on stage was superbly effective, not least because of the physical dominance of the wall, cruelly impenetrable. As the interleaved echoes of both sisters’ voices faded into nothingness beyond the gunshots, we were left with the sinking realisation that this very silence must have fallen between so many siblings, invaded so many families, scarred so many lives from 1961 to 1989. To bring this historical moment so intimately, intensely alive in the mind of a modern audience is a significant achievement.

Schutzwall Mimi Doulton

Mimi Doulton as Angelika Meyer. Photography by Claire Shovelton

Presented as part of the Tête à Tête Festival

Rating: 4 stars

Reviewed at RADA on Saturday 12 August 2017

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