Shakespeare among the Rubble: Union House Theatre’s “Third Person”

Posted on May 25, 2013

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Third Person is set in the ruins of Berlin in 1946, quite literally among the rubble of broken furniture and buildings. The city has been “cut up like a cake” after the fall of the Third Reich and tensions are starkly visible as lines of soldiers file through the Berliners scrounging among the ruins. With this potent backdrop, Third Person manages to strike the perfect balance between student and professional theatre: director Tom Gutteridge has combined the vibrancy and energy of the student cast and creative designers with a flawless production crew and Noëlle Janaczewska’s robust script.

UHT’s Shakespearean war story. Photo by Vikk Shayen Wong.

The spirit of collaboration is not just limited to the production; Third Person acts as a postmodern sequel to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, setting the stage with a familiar set of characters in the aftermath of one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. Set ten years after the notable events in the closing acts of The Merchant of Venice—Shylock’s defeat, the clearing of Anton’s debts, Portia and Jessekah’s marriages to Bassiano and Lorenzo respectively—Third Person allows the characters to demonstrate development and react to the chaos of their environment. The playwright has struck a poetic balance between an artistic snapshot of the rubble of Berlin and the heady dynamics of Shakespeare’s plot and characters. In the original, Shylock’s Jewish heritage is used quite one-dimensionally to play off the anti-Semitic stereotype of a wrathful money lender. However, against the backdrop of Hitler’s Germany, the disappearance of a wealthy Jewish man has starkly different, predominantly tragic, connotations. In this way the playwright has not only written a sequel but also reinvented the story of The Merchant of Venice, demonstrating how a change of background can radically alter not just audience perceptions but also the motivations and core values of a set of familiar characters.

The change of background allows for refreshing and inventive interpretations of the play’s events. For example, Portia’s decision to continue cross-dressing and practice as a lawyer becomes a viable precaution. She defends her choice: “Do you know what it’s like, being a woman in this city?” by hinting at her vulnerability to sexual predators in post-WWII Berlin. The female members of the cast keep the struggles of the trümmerfrauen (‘rubble-women’ who scavenged and cleared away the piles of rubble) in the spotlight with particularly riveting and heart-felt performances. This ensemble serves the practical purpose of entwining the story arcs of Portia and Jessekah, while also shaping and altering the space by rearranging the set made up of debris.

Isabella Vadiveloo in UHT’s ‘Third Person’. Photo by Vikk Shayen Wong.

It is in the ensemble of the rubble-women that the audience can see the disassociation with collective identity which gives the play its title. Observing the women sifting through furniture, clothing and bricks, one solider describes how they have gone from referring to themselves with the collective “we” and personal “I” to the impersonal third person: “he/she/they.” The soldiers clearly articulate debt and indebtedness. While Portia, Jessekah and Anton struggle with familial, moral and financial debt, the Allied soldiers wonder aloud at the collective “indebtedness” of the German citizens to the Allied nations.

While Third Person’s text is rich and resonant, Union House Theatre’s production has added its own unique layers to make this a truly spectacular performance. In particular, Ashlee Clapp’s original score and musical direction is astounding. The sheer variety in the use of music—from the structured band pieces which divided the action to seamless and poetic blending of actors and musicians—not only enriches the piece but at times plays the lead role. For the most part this is led by club songstress Yamina, portrayed by the exceptionally talented Elyssia Koulouris. However, the most powerful scenes are not focused on the structured musical pieces but rather infused by the interludes of musical improvisation and eerie choral pieces layered over the dialogue.

Elyssia Koulouris, crooning. Photo by Vikk Shayen Wong.

The acting is phenomenal, in particular the female leads Portia (Sarah Fitzgerald) and Jessekah (Isabella Vadiveloo). The audience was glued to Clancy Moore’s smooth and conniving Anton, as well as the aforementioned Elyssia Koulouris as Yamina. The only thing that feels out of place in the performance is a scene towards the end of the play in which Yamina announces she is not going to sing, and instead whips out an iPad and runs through a personal photo collection, reflecting on the status of migrants. It is as confusing and out of place as it sounds. Upon reflection, I can kind of understand how it fits with the a sub-plot of the Shakespearian original, however, it broke the ethereal spell of despair in the ruins and disrupted the flow significantly.

Despite this, Third Person is an absolute triumph. It blends two familiar narratives in a dark, postmodern tale which challenges modern readings of both The Merchant of Venice and Berlin society in 1946. I promise you this performance is 100% worth going to see, even if you are an Arts student on their fourth ‘Hitler’s Germany’ subject.

Union House Theatre  presents Third Person from 23 May – 1 June at Union Theatre.

Hilary Binks is You’re Dripping Egg’s theatre reviewer. You can read more of her musings on the Melbourne theatre scene here.

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