Fake news is the currency in Berlin during the 1948-49 Soviet blockade in composer and director Conor Mitchell’s ambitious musical theatre co-production for the Belfast Ensemble and Lyric theatre. Personal stories of love and betrayal play out against the vast post-second world war canvas of redrawn maps and shifting allegiances. As American and British forces airlift supplies to the citizens of the devastated city, the cold war is born.
In Conor Murphy’s imposing design, a bombed-out streetscape looms, with scaffolding extending from the theatre’s orchestra pit, exposed by searchlights. The setting is the bare apartment of a Russian former war photographer, Slavi (Darren Franklin) and his self-sacrificing German lover, Hanna (Joanna O’Hare). For cash, they depend on selling erotic photographs of Hanna on the black market, with the dubious assistance of an American Red Cross serviceman, Ruddy (Oliver Lidert). When Margot (Celia Graham), a diva in Marlene Dietrich mode, recognises Slavi’s artistic talent, she draws the young couple to the attention of Comrade Poliakoff (Sean Kearns).
Establishing these characters slowly, using effervescent jazz and satirical Hollywood dance numbers, Mitchell’s score also incorporates operatic lyricism through the character of Magda (Rebecca Caine), whose evening gown is all that is left of her former life as a concert pianist. In the haunting song Never Said a Word, Magda remembers the prewar years when she had turned a blind eye to the persecution of her Jewish neighbours, including the young Hanna.
Mitchell is librettist-composer-director here, which suggests one hyphen too many; another director’s eye might have tightened the first act. Yet in the second, in intricately orchestrated through-sung ensembles, the performances, music and dramatic plot gel, as Hanna emerges from Slavi’s shadow, into new dangers. Margot and her sidekick Gerhardt (Matthew Cavan) prove adept at adapting to shifts in power. Everyone is desperately hiding something in order to survive.
Poliakoff’s unreliable commentary on truth and fact, art and realism is layered over video projections that combine archive newsreel footage with fictional imitations of them. This manipulation of images and words becomes integral to a production that threatens to be overcomplicated but grows thrillingly in impact – and in contemporary resonance.