Following in the footsteps of the now established Punchdrunk, Battersea’s Testbed1 presents Heaven in Berlin, a raw display of promenade theatre. It takes the intimacy and interactive nature of immersive theatre but here the specially adapted location, in this case an industrial space, is intended to imitate and capture the essence of the story and its location, in this case pre-Cold War Berlin.
We are transported to the desolate Soviet occupied East side in 1985; the Wall still exists as a physical, political and emotional divide. The city has become a magnet for the world’s edgiest artists where we meet an ageing English rocker who finds himself there after fleeing London to seek renewed freedom, prestige and romance on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. His new world is exotic, lonely, liberating and claustrophobic: a city with innumerable barriers with both lovers and prisoners as inhabitants.
Not only was this a great piece of theatre in itself, but the overall experience was truly transcendental that it was quite a challenge to snap back into reality afterwards. The great thing about promenade theatre is that while you do feel autonomous, there is still an element of structure to the performance. So rather than selecting the scene which you choose to watch, you’re gently guided by the actors, lighting and music to the next scene. Whilst at the same time peripheral characters are still in motion in the background, adding to the mise en scene but not hijacking it.
You are your own director, choosing your angle, distance from the actors and lighting, enabling everyone to get their own individual perspective, where not one experience is identical. The lighting is brilliantly done and plays a pivotal role in creating the right ambience from whichever angle you happen to capture the scene.
Music is another key atmospheric element with live guitar and electronic rhythms from Can, Neu!, Klaus Nomi, Iggy Pop and David Bowie, running throughout, nicely threading the scenes together.
There were fantastic performances by all especially Heather Nimmo who plays troubled adolescent Judi. Being able to get so close to the actors and see their facial expressions was an absolute joy, bringing a rawer quality to regular theatre outing where voice projection and sometimes overacting are a necessity to get a performance across.
This promenade play perfectly combines the best elements of film and theatre; getting the live performance experience albeit in a more intimate, film close-up kind of way. The eerie and minimalist set was so befitting of the story and vividly embodied the spirit of Berlin. Just make sure you bring comfortable shoes for the walk!
Heaven in Berlin is now booking until 23 October at:
33 Parkgate Road