It seems to be no coincidence that Tunnels—a play set in East Germany—is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall, and recently there’s been a heightened interest in this Soviet state— typified by Channel 4’s popular show Deutschland 89, which ended this year.
From 1949 to 1990, it was virtually impossible to escape from the communist GDR to the capitalist West. Citizens were trapped by the Berlin Wall that, at 3.6 meters tall, loomed over East Berliners. There were few successful attempts, ranging from the pedestrian method of hiding in a car’s boot, to the more perverse and dangerous methods such as flying a hot air balloon over the borderline or ramming a stolen tank right across the death strip. Rather than the above-ground methods, Further Theatre’s latest historical offering Tunnels, focuses on those who dug their way to freedom.
Tunnels begins with the GDR’s national anthem blaring. Black and white archive footage flashes on the screen and two men—Paul and Freddie Metz (Lewis Bruniges and Oliver Yellop)—wave the GDR flag and the communist flag. For a moment, it seems that these men are patriots, but it’s quickly revealed that they are desperate to leave the East, and they’re on a mission to dig themselves out. Underground with the characters is where the audience will dwell for the duration of the play. The two men are cousins, and they’re hungry for a taste of freedom. Yet, they’re two different sides of the same coin. The leader, Paul, is a fanatic, and he’s desperate for a land he has never seen. Freddie shovels as much dirt as his cousin, but he’s got a job in Berlin, and a girlfriend, Liesel. He has reasons to stay and can feel the aching pull back to the surface when they’re just meters away from breaking into the West. As they dig, Freddie and Paul work through their political and personal feelings about the GDR.
The discussions between the two cousins cover loyalty, history and legacy. Their chatter never seems historical, but rather their worries and fears from Cold War Germany echo in contemporary Britain. The script beautifully juggles comedy and heart-wrenching tragedy. One moment, Paul and Freddie have found dog skulls and imitate radio announcers with the bones, and the next, Paul is tortured by his memories from his time in prison. This careful shift is never jarring and invites the audience to become completely invested in the cousins’ lives.
The stage is relatively sparse too, with two thin boards standing in for the tunnel. The two men never stand to full height, but this doesn’t limit their performances. Soft guitar music is played behind them, and the audience is lulled into a false sense of security, but we’re continuously pulled back to reality as GDR memos are heard over the sound system. They remind the unfamiliar audience what the political stakes were and what Paul and Freddie are risking in their escape attempt. Most impressively, the two actors only dig the tunnel with three pieces of wood and a pick and a shovel between them, but the audience is completely enveloped in a dark world filled with stale underground air.
Stuck beneath the earth with one other man, it’s easy for tension to rise and anger to boil over with nowhere to dissipate. Eventually, Tunnels reaches a crescendo which is impossible to tear your eyes away from. The curtain falls as dramatically and swift as the iron curtain.
Words by Lucy Clarke
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Image Credit: Further Theatre