To the National Theatre for David Hare’s one-man show on Berlin. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect this. Quite simply, it was embarrassingly, exasperatingly awful.
Hare, in person, is a fan of the southern English amateur/eccentric shtick. He makes much play of not knowing his way around despite having regularly visited Berlin, as he tells us with monotonous regularity, since the early 1970s. Couldn’t he get a map? Or learn some German? But it’s crucial to the amateur/eccentric thing that your put-on ignorance isn’t read to affect your status. In fact, it wouldn’t work if it didn’t sit over a vast pool of arrogance and self-satisfaction; pretending to be a buffoon is a luxury for those who don’t have to worry about being believed.
Self-satisfaction. Yes, there is a lot of this. We hear a hell of a lot about his brilliant friends, that some of them are French government ministers, that he gets free tickets to the Berlin Philharmonic. He works through a repertoire of annoying gestures under his Michael Heseltine hairdo. And so much about buying property. Yes, now. Yes, from a well-known Marxist. But it wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for the content.
Berlin was the centre of the confrontations of the 20th century. Hitler, then Stalin. Wall. Wall gone. Nobody wants to talk about it – imagine! The RAF bombed it a lot. The Nazis had several million Jews murdered. There are lots of new buildings, and some of them are not to his taste. But now it’s full of young Europeans who appear to be having fun. People tend to leave home and go there and find ways of life that their parents don’t understand (how does this differ from, say, San Francisco or Bombay?) The bastards.
Gripping stuff, eh. There was worse, though – a succession of tiresome jokes about pompous and patriotic Frenchmen, bureaucratic Germans, ignorant Brits, some truly weird politics, and some observations about Berlin scenes that were factually impossible. We got a lot of stuff about Tempelhof airport without hearing that he can’t always fly there, as he claims, because it’s been shut for three months. The Theater am Schiffbauerdamm is apparently a huge domineering building, rather like the Comedie Francaise, and it stands opposite a giant shopping mall.
None of these statements are true; I’ve been there, although like Hare I’ve never been to a play there. I don’t know if the comparison with the Comedie Francaise is valid. The theatre, for what it’s worth, is not at all huge and is situated discreetly behind trees. Am Schiffbauerdamm is a quiet river embankment – the name means “On the Shipbuilders’ River Embankment” which ought to be a clue, but then, Hare’s German is atrocious – with some nice restaurants, but which faces towards the huge railway viaduct that carries both the great east-west main lines and the S-Bahn through the city centre. (Hey, look at the overhead imagery.) In fact, the railway station the theatre looks across to (FriedrichstraÃŸe) was once the major crossing point between West and East Berlin, and far from a shopping mall, part of the station was once the border-control checkpoint known as the Hall of Tears (TrÃ¤nenhalle).
Hare goes for a walk down what he refers to as the Ost-West Achse in the Tiergarten. Well, it’s been called the StraÃŸe des 17 Juni since 1953, which is quite important. When he comes to discuss the building of the wall, he attacks Prime Minister Harold MacMillan for not “calling for insurrection in the East”. The street name should have set him sensible. There was an insurrection in the East, on the 17th of June, 1953, when the workers of East Germany rebelled against what called itself the Socialist Nation of Workers and Peasants, the police vanished, the Party network vanished, and Walter Ulbricht’s government called the Red Army and the KGB in to save themselves. The rebels were crushed under the T-34 tracks, in some places literally. After that, and the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the CIA dreams of “rollback” (very popular with Joe McCarthy) were definitively consigned to the archive. After the Bay of Pigs in 1961, this extended beyond Europe.
What could MacMillan have achieved with this calling-for? Quite a few East German policemen and soldiers deserted rather than build the wall, but they had plenty more. The ones who did didn’t need any speeches on the radio, and one wonders if speeches would have moved the others. As Carlo Levi said about southern Italy under Mussolini, all that came from Rome were speeches on the radio, and the only thing MacMillan could have offered would have been speeches on the radio.
He could probably have got more people locked up or shot, in the best-case scenario. In the worst case, well – this was 1961, when worst-case scenarios were worse. During the Cuban crisis a year later, MacMillan and his defence secretary Peter Thorneycroft kept the leaders of RAF Bomber Command on a short leash, refusing to let them disperse the V-Bomber force for security because this would be an unmistakably provocative gesture, on bases several flying hours closer to Moscow than those of Strategic Air Command.
Hare is a long-time unilateral nuclear disarmer and pacifist. Does he really believe that what the international scene of 1961 needed was more provocation of a superpower by a major nuclear power? What on earth is he on about?
There is a broader issue here; the phrase “to call for” repels me more and more. Its function is to get you out of responsibility for your opinions. I didn’t want war – I merely called for solidarity with the US in fighting terrorism. It also acts as a way of escaping the healthy discipline of detail. It is telling that it is fashionable with the neoconservatives, the Decents, and the hard left all at once – all the retailers of the goods dream-hungry youth demand, according to Leszek Kolakowski.
I call for action on Darfur! But I say nothing of the mountainous problems of projecting force into the roadless and railless interior of western Sudan, nothing of whose infantry are to actually go and get killed there, nothing of who exactly they are meant to kill or threaten effectively to kill, or for what aims. I just called for. Let’s decommission this phrase, like a worn-out nuclear power station – switch it off gracefully, sever the lines and fill the damn thing with concrete, and watch it carefully for a hundred years to see nothing leaks out.
For a slightly more constructive critique, my partner suggested Hare retitle the show as being “Meditations on Flight No…” where the number is the BA flight from London to Tegel. She’s right – everything about it that wasn’t obvious, trivial, or simply wrong was more interesting as an account of international art-bureaucrat culture than of Berlin, or London.