Both of Belvoir’s spaces are devoted to stage adaptations of novels at the moment.
Upstairs is Bliss, based on Peter Carey’s novel. Downstairs is Daniel Schlusser’s quicksilver version of German author Christa Wolf’s They Divided the Sky.
The latter is by far the most persuasive as a work of theatre.
Published in 1963 in the former GDR, They Divided the Sky was Wolf’s break-through work, a semi-autobiographical story describing the relationship between a young woman – 19 when we meet her – and a man ten years her senior in the months surrounding the building of the Berlin Wall.
Rita (played by Nikki Shiels) is recovering from an accident in the factory where she works a summer job making window frames for train carriages.
During her morning bike-ride to work, she encounters Manfred (Stephen Phillips), a handsome chemical engineer who likes to perform his ablutions al fresco.
After going to a dance, they quickly become an item and soon move in with Manfred’s parents
It seems a promising love match but there are other forces at play.
Rita, born after WWII, is a child of the communist state and despite the toxic politics she observes, remains committed to its future.
Manfred, who grew up during the Third Reich, seems no less idealistic in his hopes for a science-guided society, but is more cynical when it comes to politics.
When the Berlin Wall splits their country into ideologically opposed halves Rita is forced to decide where her loyalties lie.
Faithful to the book’s fragmented narrative and flashback structure, Schlusser (who also directs) relates the story in tightly composed scenes capturing key moments in the relationship, which Shiels and Phillips play Rita and Manfred with fluency, delicacy and warmth around, on and eventually in the enamel bath in the centre of a reconfigured, in-the-round space.
Produced under the rules of Belvoir’s 25A program, the production’s budget is limited to a measly $1500, but what little money there is has been carefully targeted.
Mel Page’s costuming is dowdily spot-on. James Paul’s musique concrete score is near-constant and excellent. Amelia Lever-Davidson’s lighting design uses florescent and incandescent lighting to underline shifts in time, keeping us abreast of what might otherwise be a slippery narrative.
The most sophisticated of the 25A productions we’ve seen, They Divided the Sky has been made with exceptional care and the performances – tenderly drawn and perfectly scaled to this intimate space – are delightful.