Cities are constructed, from the ground up, of glass and bricks and mortar and steel; equally, they are constructed of memories and hopes and disappointments. In this age of budget globetrotting, if you’ve seen one city, you may feel you’ve seen them all, but it is arguable that you’ve certainly seen them through the filter of all the other cities you’ve visited, or inhabited.
In environmental psychology, the notion of “place attachment” has to do with this construction, and can be divided into ideas around meaning and preference. In the former, landscape can be said to evoke thoughts, feelings, memories and interpretations; the latter has to do with the degree of liking of one landscape as opposed to the other. For Playgroup, whose original provenance is Cork, and whose current workplace can only be called Ryanair Country, both of these concepts come into play in their new production, Berlin Love Tour. Based on the experiences of one of the company’s founders, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, written by Lynda Radley, and directed by Tom Creed, the show is a two and-a-half hour walking tour of Berlin – except, well, it’s in Dublin. O’Shaughnessy plays our guide, who will reveal as much about herself as she will about the city itself… or is it “the cities themselves”?
Radley currently lives in Glasgow, and anyone who is a Facebook friend of Creed’s is regularly privy to status updates from all over the world. And yet, they identify strongly with their home place. Playgroup was formed from a core group of UCC Dramat up-and-comers, and both Creed and Radley point to the aftermath of Cork’s designation as European Capital of Culture as the impetus to hit the road. While many European cities used the period to create an infrastructure that continued to support artists, they think that it didn’t happen in Cork, and it would seem that a diaspora was created following the event.
“There are great number of important theatre artists that are there, and also that came from Cork and moved on,” insists Creed, but, “the thing that you do is, you start in Cork, and then you move on.” Radley thinks that’s a shame. “It becomes kind of hard [to work there] and you do wonder, well, what’s more important? Is it more important that I’m in Cork or is it more important that I get to make the kind of work that I want to make? There are choices to be made.” “Some of us stayed around because it was going to be Capital of Culture,” says Creed, “and as soon as it was gone, there was no reason for us to stay around anymore.”
The company has not suffered from the enforced exile. Creed is an associate director of Rough Magic theatre company, and has two shows in the forthcoming Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival, directing Beckett’s Watt in the Gate Theatre, and reviving Una Santa Oscura, a theatrical musical experience loosely based on the work of the twelfth-century abbess, Hildegard von Bingen. Radley has successfully played in her one-woman show, The Art of Swimming, about long distance swimmer Mercedes Glietze, which was developed with the support of The Arches, in Glasgow, for, she says, about £100stg.
The ability to create big moments on a shoestring can be seen as a defining characteristic of Playgroup’s oeuvre. “The scale of the shows and the ambition of the ideas are bursting at the seams,” says Creed, and Radley adds, “There is such ambition behind everything and, yeah, sure, we haven’t got any money, but that’s not going to stop us.”
It was O’Shaughnessy’s own departure from Cork, following its year as Capital of Culture that serves as the seeds for Berlin Love Tour. On the company’s blog she has written an account of her experience of settling in Berlin. Her best recourse to work was as a tour guide; following a fight with her German boyfriend, she wondered how she was actually going to be able to do that job. She writes: “I thought about how ridiculous it would be if I had to get up tomorrow and show a bunch of tourists Berlin, pretending that everything was OK when it wasn’t. I had learnt about Berlin through my boyfriend. Every bloody building would scream at me as I passed: ‘remember this?’ I got out of bed and wrote a few ideas down. Yes, in real life it may be awful, but it might make a good idea for a play.”
Creed promises, with underlying glee, that Berlin Love Tour will be more than just a straightforward tramp around a city that is not this city, hinting at unexpected things that may leap out at us around blind corners, whether literally or figuratively. Conceptually, it entails a marriage of the global and the personal, taking in ideas of “memory, history, and taking some of the ideas that are really alive in German memorial theory, which is: what do you remember, and what do you forget?” Creed says. “How do you mark something that should be remembered… and this leads to what to remember, how to remember, the act of remembering and forgetting. And in this, we apply those principles to the breaking up of a relationship.”
At the time of the interview, they are two days away from previewing, and O’Shaughnessy is at home, nursing torn ligaments in her foot. They show remarkable equanimity, and put it down to that fact that in almost every Playgroup production, the stresses mount. Yet the ideas keep coming as they make the work, and they just keep up with it all.
It’s up to the audience to keep up with them in Berlin Love Tour, not only with the layers of meaning and preferences that the makers bring to the work, but also with each audience member’s own impressions of the city in which they live, and the perceptions of a place they may or may not have been. In allowing us to construct a new city, a Dublin/Berlin, who knows what new city may arise, and what new map may be drawn from the collective exploration of love and loss.
Susan Conley is a writer and arts journalist.
Fintan Walsh reviews Berlin Love Tour. Read all our Absolut Fringe '10 reviews.