Proof that powerful theatre can have a deep resonance

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Robyn Nevin as Brunhilde Pomsel. Photo: Andrew Beveridge.

“A German Life”, by Christopher Hampton, starring Robyn Nevin, directed by Neil Armfield. Canberra Theatre Playhouse until May 16. Reviewed by JOE WOODWARD.

NOURISHMENT for the soul. In most cases, such a phrase is a cliché.

The idea that theatre can have a deeper resonance within one’s very being and personal psyche is not new. It is something that can only be experienced in the presence of a powerful story teller or, like the Ancient Mariner, a person who must tell and retell a shattering experience to whoever will listen.

We have come to dismiss such notions in the theatre. Yet Robyn Nevin provides just such an exceptional enactment in “A German Life”. Nevin demonstrates the difference between performance and art in less than 90 minutes of sheer engagement with her audience who have come to listen and see.

Nevin has been gifted a script by Christopher Hampton that is a study in humanity and contradictions within an otherwise ordinary life lived in an extraordinary situation. From this script, she embodies every cell of a person’s existence to exude the substance of a child through to old age and near death.

Photo: Andrew Beveridge.

Acting students learn about the idea of being “present” or in the moment when creating and presenting a role on stage or film. Nevin has released the power of every word and gesture to tap something of her own relationship with the rest of humanity. Making a cup of tea, drinking water, stooping to pick up a tissue, the act of sitting down or standing up, the attention of her gaze into the audience. The simplicity of it all, capped with her own highly tuned acting skill, provides the words with flesh and real life.

Neil Armfield’s direction permeates the space of the stage and the auditorium. His work creates art over performance. He facilitates the extraordinary with simplicity to allow for the story and the actor to create theatre’s own life. His work is non-intrusive; but scaffolding of inspiration. Part of this involved the cello-playing presence of Catherine Finnis, who was seen and heard, yet never intrusive. The music of Alan John and Finnis’ cello playing echoed at various points in the production to enhance the moments of clear memory from Brunhilde Pomsel, Nevin’s character.

Visual images from Nazi-era Germany were used sparingly on the walls to support the story at times; though it might have been just as effective to do without them altogether. They were useful for context and breaking up the presentation into discernible beats and certainly kept up the energy and rhythm of the piece.

Such was the overall effect of “A German Life” that many in the normally staid Canberra audience gave a standing ovation at the conclusion. “A German Life” proved that theatre is more than a distracting entertainment.

It proved that engagement of words, body, soul and space, given the proper context, can be nourishing and can evoke the need in contemporary society for something other than a fast-food variety of performance, narcissism and kitsch.

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