Originally written for Exeunt.
Berlin is a city of remembering. Its streets are scarred, marked, tiled with notes from the past. Bullet holes and metal plaques; imposing monuments and gaping voids.
As the eponymous common ground of Yael Ronen’s show, then, Berlin as a place offers countless echoes. In this city inscribed with conflict, Ronen has found and gathered various survivors of another set of conflicts: the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. All of her performers – save Israeli Orit Nahmias and German Niels Bormann, mirroring the nationalities and backgrounds of Ronen and her dramaturg Irina Szodruch – came to Berlin from various shards of this splintering nation. From Belgrade, Sarajevo, Novi Sad and Prijedor, they have met in Berlin rehearsal rooms to confront their collective pasts, navigating between the oscillating poles of victim and aggressor.
From the shrapnel of guilt, blame and conflicting narratives emerges one repeated truth: it’s complicated. As one performer demonstrates with an attempt to explain his tangled family history, this is a region of Europe that is criss-crossed with different allegiances and antagonisms. Rather than resolving that complication, though, Common Ground slams it centre stage. In its hands it holds two opposing impulses: we want to understand; we can’t understand.
Drawing on a mixture of research and autobiography, Common Ground begins in 1991, racing from there through the chaotic and devastating collapse of Yugoslavia in subsequent years. After a playfully self-aware introduction from Nahmias and Bormann – the two onlookers – the show immediately hits warp speed. Attack follows natural disaster follows hit pop song. The company have created an unruly, overlapping collage of the 1990s, setting civil war in the Balkans against a backdrop of global shifts. In one part of the world people are being slaughtered; in another, Bryan Adams reigns the charts. Atrocity knocks up against banality.
If it’s fevered and anarchic, that’s the point. Scrambling to keep up, we’re left breathless and disorientated, this speeded up chronology feeling more like an assault than a history lesson. Like the conflicts themselves, it’s difficult to piece together. Surrounded by the debris of Magda Willi’s design – all boxes and clutter – the performers then begin the slow and arduous process of rebuilding. Portions of the set are stacked and slotted together, tried in new combinations, as the show itself mirrors the process of these individuals coming together and sharing their experiences.
Common Ground is, explicitly and unapologetically, the combined narrative of its company. Everything here has been generated and shaped by the performers, who press hard on personal bruises. Through this approach, the show deftly dodges many of the pitfalls of the documentary play. Instead of claiming veracity, it presents complexity and the elusiveness of understanding, apportioning and then complicating blame. These are, of course, political stories, but they are personal stories first; there’s never any attempt at a complete history or a diagnosis of where it all fell apart.
Politically, it feels vital to reflect on how we process and package the past. Walking around Berlin for six days, I’m struck by the difference in how cultural memory is constructed here. There’s a rawness to these wounds, whose healing is an ongoing process. In the UK, meanwhile, we have an insidious, poppy-garlanded triumphalism, slyly manoeuvred for political gain. We have “Blitz spirit”, tarted up into austerity and stamped with a “Keep Calm and Carry On” logo. War is, perversely, almost something to be nostalgic about.
If Berlin’s wounds are raw, then those exposed by Common Ground are still dripping with blood. When the company visits Bosnia, the people they meet struggle to talk about what happened two decades ago. As one Sarajevo resident puts it, the war never really ended: it continued within people, poisonously unresolved. Another woman is trapped in a cycle of remembering, retelling and retelling her trauma until the words dry up. These narratives – dropped by the rest of the world as a new conflict pierced the horizon – have never achieved closure, but still they keep being repeated.
So it’s surprising to find humour and optimism here as well as pain and anguish. There’s a respectful lightness of touch to Ronen and Szodruch’s production, which manages to salvage both the hopeful and the ridiculous. It comes down, ultimately, to the relationships among the company, in which the show locates a tentative note of positivity. Difficulty never disappears, but tenderness challenges it, as the common ground of the title gradually multiplies. In that shared territory, that shifting ground beneath the feet of these seven people, there might just be a fragile foundation for hope.