Last Thursday night I went on a tour of Berlin…in Birmingham. Part of the fantastic Fierce Festival of live art, Berlin Love Tour was a guided tour of the German capital city through the streets of Birmingham, led by Hilary O’Shaughnessy. Hilary, as she explained at the outset, had lived (and loved) in Berlin after leaving her native Ireland. The Berlin Love Tour came from an idea by O’Shaughnessy and Tom Creed, and was first performed at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010.
Meeting outside the Crescent Theatre (a local gem just off Brindley Place and Broad Street) were around 15 to 20 people ranging in age from early twenties to their sixties all wrapped up warm in the bitter cold. As we gathered we were accompanied by what looked like a busker with a guitar; however, his clean and smart-ish attire gave him away as part of the performance. We were then greeted by Hilary, who warned us against jaywalking (illegal in Berlin) and also that anyone expecting an erotic tour would be disappointed. She introduced us to the key themes of the performance: what’s remembered and what’s forgotten, what’s been destroyed and what remains. It was clear from the outset that the legacy of the Second World War, Nazism, and the Berlin Wall would be all pervading during the next two hours.
First stop was the Palast der Republik, a relic of the East German past which housed galleries, a theatre, restaurants, a bowling alley and a discotheque. The Birmingham backdrop for this was a piece of waste ground off Broad Street, a fitting blank canvas to get our imaginations in gear. Next up was the Mitte – the heart of Berlin, or in our case just outside the Slug next to the canal. Hilary told us how the Mitte was considered ‘poor but sexy’ and is now a victim of its reputation as the cool and hip area of the city: high rents, coffee shops and bars are the defining characteristics now (an appropriate echo of Brindley Place). The Brandenburg Gate was envisaged in place of the Regus building next to the Sealife Centre, and our guide’s moving tales of memorials to those killed in concentration camps was an interesting contrast to the suited city boys and girls hanging out and smoking outside Bank. It was at this point that the guitarist caught up with us and played Blur’s Out of Time. This brought us straight back into our modern physical surroundings and out of our journey into the past.
Our next stops were the River Spree and the Unter den Linden boulevard. At both stops we were told fragments of Hilary’s relationship with Alex, her German boyfriend, and the sinister aspects of their time together hinted at an emotionally abusive and turbulent time. The Bebelplatz was next up, projecting the site of the former royal library where Marx, Engels and Einstein had all studied on to the site of the impressive new Library of Birmingham. The Bebelplatz was also the site of the infamous Nazi book-burning ceremony of 1933. By this point Hilary’s recollections of her time with Alex were getting more intense and distressing and at the next stop at Birmingham’s Hall of Memory in Centenary Square she told of arguments through tears.
We moved on via Hitler’s bunker to the Berlin Wall, along with the climax of Hilary’s own story (all interspersed with distracting musical interludes). Stories of failed escape attempts over, under and through the wall were combined with the account of how Alex left Hilary. What was striking about Hilary and Alex’s story was the depth of her love for him, no matter how much they fought and what he did to her. The influence of the Berlin Wall was also clear; ‘it’s just a wall’ Hilary said at one point, but it is undeniably much more than a physical symbol.
Our final stop was the rooftop of the Brindley Place car park where we could look out over the city. The last account was of Stasi informants; since the wall came down and records have been released, families, friends and co-workers have tried to both forget and remember their betrayal. Hilary also explained how hard a ventricular assist device (known as a ‘Berlin Heart’) is to remove from patients, a true allegory of her time with Alex. The final scene of the performance was the guitarist accompanied by members of the Birmingham Choral Union singing Tender by Blur. His appearance brought us back to Birmingham from Berlin (and sadly in this case, to a deserted car park).
The tour was largely enjoyable and Hilary O’Shaughnessy was a brilliant guide and performer. Her skills in taking us not only to those landmarks of Berlin but also into the depths of her own relationship proved the event a true ‘love tour’. However, the regular appearances of the guitarist, Greg Milner, were at times grating and distracting. The choice of songs, mainly modern brit-pop tracks, were not in-keeping with the historic narrative and were sung in a way that they became a dirge. Considering Hilary’s story, it would be unfitting for the songs to be upbeat, but her skill in storytelling had already evoked the emotions Milner was trying to get across. The music therefore added nothing but did take something away, always bringing us back to our real surroundings. Still, it was a unique and innovative piece, truly in keeping with Fierce Festival as a whole, and I would recommend the experience to all.
Words by Andy Newnham