Fans of political theatre, children’s theatre, and German theatre are all likely to have heard of Berlin’s GRIPS Theatre. One of the nation’s top companies, the GRIPS perform a staggering 15 plays in repertoire, with routine new additions tackling the issues facing contemporary German youth. However, the company’s most famous plays are those dealing head-on with Berlin history: the political play-cum-cabaret Eine Linke Geschichte (A leftist history), about the Red Army Faction, and their first musical, the 1986 Linie 1 (Line 1).
Linie 1 is a tricky play to review, especially for a foreigner. It is billed (and appropriately so) as a “musical revue” directly below the title, though the published scripts and posters have referred to it as a rock musical and “the Berlin musical.” The first and last terms are the most accurate, as it plays closer to a revue (more below) and requires a great deal of knowledge regarding 1980’s West Berlin to fully appreciate. Even visiting German speakers will have a problem following the dialogue in full, as it is written and performed with an extreme usage of Berlin dialect.
Caveats aside, Linie 1 is perhaps one of the most brilliant shows ever written in terms of capturing a zeitgeist: A well meaning and naive girl from the West German provinces runs away from home, seeking out the rock star she fell in love with, upon finding out she’s carrying his child. Unfortunately for her, Berlin is not the gilded paradise she imagined, and when it’s revealed that her lover falsified his address, she wanders around the city, running into and associating with the equally well meaning dregs of society inhabiting the underground stations while her new friends attempt to reunite her with the man who ran. Then again, she may not get to meet him if the area pimp gets to her first, and who is this strange lad in a trench-coat following her around?
To be honest, though, the plot doesn’t really matter. Linie 1 runs over three hours including interval, and the story is often derailed to explore another facet of society through the outsider’s eyes. It takes almost half an hour to wrap up events after the massive plot twist in the second act, and even that is undermined by requiring significant emotional involvement for a character who appeared in a single scene some two hours earlier. Likewise, re-appearances are foreshadowed but fail to materialise at times, and massive leaps of faith are mandatory to handle the conclusion. The ensemble cast of eleven take on a staggering number of characters, with only the central character maintaining a single identity through the evening, creating the detached wonder-bordering-confusion facing those in unknown territory: as soon as the audience get attached to one of our heroine’s encounters, they alight from the train never to be seen again.
This isn’t to say that most of these sequences aren’t interesting - they are - and Volker Ludwig (the company’s driving force as well as the book and lyrics’ author) intentionally designed the show to be a series of sketches versus a traditional book show. However, the RZ feels that some well placed edits could easily streamline 20+ minutes off the runtime and leave the audience with a more emotionally satisfying work.
Our unnamed protagonist's journey comes backed by Birger Heymann’s score, played 22 years on by show band No Ticket's original members (except for a new sax player). The songs are catchy, and despite being blatantly 80’s maintain a freshness and honesty some two decades later. While responsible for driving almost none of the plot, the music provides the introspective view needed to provide pathos from the recurring characters, from the unnamed girl’s excitement in “6:14 Bahnhoff Zoo” to a busker’s bitter song about the capital, the beautiful at heart Maria’s mournful tune (“You’re pretty, even when you cry”) and number featuring the embittered crowd waiting for a train.
Mathias Fischer-Dieskau’s design offers as much as a small thrust stage can, with some clever effects that can only work in a low budget venue like the GRIPS including the proto-MTV method of placing the band on a scrim fronted platform . Yoshio Yabara’s provides the most recent update to the costumes, which retain their period vintage.
Finally, we have the cast. Being an ensemble company, members of the GRIPS come and go through the years, but many have returned to perform in Linie 1. 2007, however, saw a mass exodus, and a new company were promoted on the website. Kathrin Osterode has the voice and the potential, but doesn’t appear to have quite settled into the role (something difficult given Linie 1 only gets 4-5 performances per month). Laura Leyh is more adjusted on her track, which includes the confidant role of Maria. Jens Mondalski is a playful punk, and hanging on after 22 years, Thomas Ahrens and Dietrich Lehmann remain as two homeless elderly who bicker while providing a poignant reminder of those ignored by Germany’s economic dominance in the 80’s.
While it possesses its share of structural flaws, Linie 1 is a fascinating look at the latter days of divided Berlin, a spirit of the age which has far outlived the circumstances responsible for its creation, and which its creators never expected to be performed as a historical piece. While performances are limited, visitors to Berlin would be well served to seek out this engaging production.
Where: GRIPS Theater, Berlin
When: In repertoire. Check the company website.
Cost: €18 general admission (£15)
Concessions: €10 (£8)
**NOTE** Ticketing at the GRIPS is extremely low tech. Reservations must be phoned in to the box office and claimed up to 24 hours in advance at the theatre. Payments are cash only, and if you will be unable to claim your ticket in advance, email the venue and they’ll hold your place until the day. The BO is open for collections from 10AM-5PM.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15. Despite its problems, Linie 1 is a crash course in the Berlin experience with great music from a remarkable company.
RZ Other Notes: That said, because the GRIPS is a company designed for children’s and youth productions, most performances are flooded by school groups who are not always the best behaved, even (especially?) for Germany. The night the RZ went there was plenty of talking, moving around, and open text messaging through the entire show, and he would guess most of the audience were 13-16 years old. Because of the company’s reputation, you do see a fair number of independent adults in attendance as well, though they are certainly in the minority.