Following the two earlier pieces with more contemporary settings (Outlier and Cult), Jordan Tannahill’s Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes transports us back to 1962 to witness the final hour of an East German teenager’s life.
The Berlin Wall and the accompanying stretch of cleared land known as the ‘death strip’ had only recently been constructed. The play cleverly contrasts the violence of that infant structure and the vibrancy of the young life it extinguishes in a poignant framing of the queer struggle for progress and love.
A challenge for any performer in a historical piece is to situate yourself fully in the character’s context. In this case one that is distant not only in time but also geographically, culturally and politically.
Carlo Hengstler, with Gavin Roach’s able direction, has done a commendable job of sketching in the detail of the character’s life and setting and it shows in the well-grounded and moving performance he gives.
This piece offers another hurdle for the actor in the huge spectrum of emotional terrain it asks them to traverse. From the headstrong idealism of youth to the mortal pain of a fatal bullet wound, Hengstler rises admirably to the task.
Navigating the dystopian wreckage of Fernando Ulloa’s busy set, he captures the nonchalance of the teen expectation that life will go on forever and the feverish optimism of what the future may hold. There were a few opening night nerves and tangled lines along the way but his focus never faltered.
A cast of voiceover actors (Michelle Perera, Lachlan Blair and Shahriar Shadab) and Jack Burmeister’s rich soundscape circle Peter, anchoring his relationships with family and friends and building the palpable atmosphere of expectation and disaster.
The queer content in this piece is, I think aptly, rather subtle. Especially if you’ve just seen the two preceding shows in the same space. This makes sense given the setting and even more so for a character whose awareness of himself is just dawning.
He is not immediately aware of the fact that even though he has misgivings about trying to sneak over the Wall, he is allowing himself to be led there because he cannot imagine himself without his friend for whom he clearly nurtures romantic feelings. It is a touching portrayal of young unrequited love.
In the 59th minute, Peter is killed by the East German guards whose conversations he has been imagining as he watches them deliberate in their tower. It isn’t a happy ending but the final and sudden snuffing out of a young queer life at the hands of a regime that would fall 30 years later is powerful.
It serves as a reminder that political absolutism is always a brittle lie and, more painfully, that progress has always come at a heavy human cost. Amidst the parties and pageantry of Pride season, this central truth must always be given a sacral space. This piece does exactly that.
Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes
Meat Market Stables, 2 Wreckyn Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Wednesday 1 February 2023
Season continues to 11 February 2023
Information and Bookings: www.midsumma.org.au
Image: Carlo Hengstler in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes – photo by James Reiser