"Secrets and lies in Germany"
by Coco Hall for remotegoat on 03/03/10

There's a slightly dated feel to this production of Sunflowerhouse by Anne Rabe. If you've seen any of the past few years' German films dealing with the reunification of Germany (Goodbye Lenin, The Edukators), you might be left feeling that the play adds nothing new to the debate.

Sunflowerhouse is apparently legendary in Germany for lifting the veil on criticism of the post-unification situation in the north of Germany, but perhaps if you have no personal tie to the story, you may find it overly didactic and I think that the relative inexperience of the playwright (22 when she wrote it) shows.

The play centres around a family living in a high-rise block. The son, Micha, is making a documentary about his family for his application to film school, and in the course of his filming, he uncovers secrets and lies. His father was a Stasi informant and is strangely absent, reviled by their neighbours; his pregnant sister can't continue university and has split up with the child's father and his best friend has become a Neo-nazi. Micha himself may have been involved in a racist arson attack on the Sunflower House.

The play uses live and pre-recorded video throughout and this gives a distorting and alienating effect. Scenes are titled and the titles appear on the TV set in the lounge. Micha films everything and it's difficult to know whether to watch the actors acting live, or reflected back via the TV screen. Indeed at one point, it seems as though the video lead has fallen out, and you worry that the actors haven't noticed it, but then one of the characters says they haven't really been filming, so it's all alright. The set is inventive and expressionistic, the backgrounds working particularly well once they are filtered through the video camera.

The three actors in this production at the Tristan Bates Theatre are very good, and make the most within the constraints of the play. Sometimes the actors half-step out of their character to explain German specific phrases or words, which works well. Sam Fordham as idealistic would-be filmmaker Micha and Jessica Sedler as his sister Klara are both good and give an authentic feel to their sibling bickering and rivalry.

The atmosphere throughout builds to an almost hysterical tension, to the point where the mother Jutta, played solidly by Jayne Denny, has no choice but to betray her son to save the family's honour. I felt given what had come before, the ending was strangely downbeat, when Micha doesn't mind too much about forfeiting the film he's previously been so passionate about, as he's got a new bike instead.

Although it is very tempting to read some political comment about the new Germany's new consumerism into that...

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