Breaking down BERLIN with writer Joanna Murray-Smith

Joanna Murray-Smith

Can you ever really leave behind the ghosts of your past?

This is the question posed in Joanna Murray-Smith’s newest play, Berlin.

Commissioned as part of MTC’s NEXT STAGE Writers’ Program, Berlin follows two young people from vastly different backgrounds meeting in the titular city. The play discusses German history from World War II through to today, and explores whether a nation can atone for their actions, be allowed to move forward, and if individuals can truly let go of the past.

Joanna is one of Australia’s most nationally and internationally acclaimed playwrights. Her work has been nominated for many awards including the Olivier Award for Best Comedy for The Female of the Species. Her other plays include Switzerland; Pennsylvania Avenue; Fury; True Minds; Day One, A Hotel, Evening; The Gift; Rockabye; Ninety; Bombshells; Honour; Redemption; Love Child; and the smash-hit, Songs for Nobodies. She has been awarded two Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Drama, the Braille Book of the Year Award, Edinburgh Fringe First Award and the London Theatregoers Choice Award.

With Berlin having just opened at the MTC, we chat with Joanna about working on the play.

What inspired you to write Berlin?

Joanna: I was in Paris with my family for five weeks and we decided visit Berlin. I was astonished by the vibrancy of the city and the energy of its youthfulness which coexisted with constant self-conscious testaments to the past. The museums and memorials about the Holocaust, the plaques commemorating terrible events, the historical streetscapes…. it all created a kind of ever present sensation of history and trauma. I became interested in how young Germans handle the continual identification of their nation and culture with the holocaust. How do they climb out of it when we are all intent on never forgetting? That lead to an imagined scenario of a German girl and a Jewish foreigner, both in their twenties, falling into a tempestuous kind of of love affair but having to wrestle with the ghosts of their individual pasts.

How has COVID changed the process?

Joanna: There have been all the attendant processes in the rehearsal room of health and safety… but the biggest effect of Covid was simply the almost simultaneous closing down of theatre companies and stages all over the world. Actors, writers, directors, desginers…. creative people whose entire lives revolve around live performance were stopped in their tracks, myself included. Possibly the writing was affected by the solitude… there was more time for reflection, fewer distractions and I suspect the benefits of that are yet to be acknowledged. I grew a lot in the last year, as an artist. But it was a very private process of evolving and more self-conscious. As so many of us have, I wrestled with what was important to me and how to live better. All ofo that will have an impact on my writing into the future.

How is the play different from your other works?

Joanna: I’m not sure it is. I mean, all two-handers depend upon the adrenaline shared on the stage between the two actors. They have to keep the ball in the air the entire time with no distractions or interruptions. So structurally, Berlin is a bit like my play Switzerland and other two-handers. But I’ve never written a play so invested in my Jewish background (on my mother’s side), nor have I written a play featuring two characters in their twenties. There are always aspects that are repetitions of themes or language and preoccupations in a body of work which is as long as mine is now. But there are also always aspects of a play that belong to it and it alone, a reflection of who you are in a particular moment.

Why should people come and see Berlin?

Joanna: Mostly because it’s live performance — something the world has been starved of for a year and if you believe in the arts, then you need to put your money where your mouth is! Aside from that, it features two wonderful young actors who demand your attention by virtue of their talent, passion and conviction.


Berlin runs at MTC’s Southbank Theatre until May 22nd.

For tickets and more information, visit www.mtc.com.au

Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator. She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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