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They Divided the Sky: Souls divided beyond a Wall of suffering

They Divided the Sky
Downstairs, Belvoir
June 15
★★★

How's this for a first-date question: wha..

They Divided the Sky
Downstairs, Belvoir
June 15

★★★

How's this for a first-date question: what part of you makes you hard to love?

Stephen Phillips and Nikki Shiels in They Divided The Sky.

It is a question asked early in this piece, and one the young protagonist Rita has time to consider, and not only of her paramour.

For this two-hander is more than a tale of an unfolding romance. It is one in which lives and relationships are shaped by political circumstances, ideals and ideology.

They Divided The Sky is the tale of an unfolding romance.

Photo: Supplied

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Based on the 1963 novel by East German writer Christa Wolf, it is set in 1960 and 1961, the period the Berlin Wall was erected.

Rita is an idealist young socialist committed to the German Democratic Republic's ideals, Manfred a scientist. A decade older than 19-year-old Rita, Manfred remembers the Second World War and the image of Hitler in his family's house. He is also a man who rates his work over Rita.

As the Wall goes up and divides East from West Germany, the pair faces a decision: to go or stay. Ideological struggles of capitalism versus communism are mirrored in the shifting dynamics of the couple's relationship.

Told from Rita's perspective, the piece unfolds in short scenes and flashbacks as she recovers from an accident in the factory in which she toils to the point of exhaustion for a better communal future. Life is made up of little bricks of suffering, she says.

Nikki Shiels, as Rita, delivers a thoughtful performance as a woman who grows in strength and wisdom as she outgrows Manfred. Stephen Phillips as Manfred is well-matched as the brash, confident scientist determined to put his own future first.

Director and adaptor Daniel Schlusser has distilled Wolf's novel into a layered, brooding piece. In Rita's willingness to sacrifice herself, Schlusser draws interesting connections, in a program note, with her literary sisters, Gretchen of Goethe's Faust and Margarita of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, although these are implied rather than overt on stage.

Played in the round, with a bathtub in the centre – in which both are immersed – the atmosphere is unsettling and claustrophobic, aided by James Paul's complex sound design.

There are strong autobiographical elements in the tale by the socialist writer who opted to remain in East Germany, and who ultimately copped criticism from both sides of the political divide.

Her controversial work was seen as decadent by communist hardliners and she was decried as an opportunist who failed to denounce a corrupt dictatorship.

Wolf's death in 2011 has prompted a more nuanced understanding of the writer on the other side of history. This production is a welcome part of that reassessment.

Joyce Morgan

Joyce Morgan is a theatre critic for The Sydney Morning Herald. She is a former arts editor and writer of the SMH and also an author.

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