On the 26th May 1952, East Germany implemented a “special regime on the demarcation line” between itself and West Germany. The demarcation line or border was one of the world’s most heavily fortified frontiers, defined by a continuous line of high metal fences and walls, barbed wire, alarms, anti-vehicle ditches, watchtowers, automatic booby traps and minefields. It was patrolled by 50,000 armed East Germans all tasked with the job of ensuring that the happy workers of the DDR weren’t corrupted by going over to the decadent West. The guards were, of course, humans and humans have emotions and dreams. Jack Westerman has used this backdrop at this time for his new play Border Men at the King’s Head Theatre.
Out in the hinterland of the border, a lone soldier comes into the guard hut. His name is Sgt Dieter Hertwig (Chris Barritt) and, tonight he is early for his inspection of the fence. After checking in with the control tower (voiced by Jonathan Blakeley), Dieter adjusts the radio and speaks to a woman called Monika (Phoebe Hames). Their conversation is short and Dieter reassures her that tonight will be the evening he finally leaves the DDR and goes over the fence to a new life in the West. After closing down the radio, Dieter starts to prepare for his departure but is interrupted by the arrival of another soldier Private Klaus Hubert (Jonathan Cobb). Klaus is a young man, full of enthusiasm after recently graduating from his border guard training. Klaus’s arrival is only the first spoke in the wheels for Dieter’s plans as the two of them are joined by Cpl Wolfgang Shafer (Connor Mills) a committed communist and then, following a power cut, local man Markus Metz (Andy McLeod) comes along to try and sort out the electrics. In order to do so, he needs something from each of the others and, as he fulfills his requirements, something unexpected and very unwelcome comes to light which will have an effect on all four of them this night.
Border Men is a really great one-act drama that over seventy-five minutes takes the audience on an amazing journey. Jack Westerman’s writing is first-rate and the story itself is excellent. I sort of guessed the ending about 10 minutes before it finished and was metaphorically patting myself on the back right up until the moment I was proved completely wrong in my thoughts.
The production was described as ‘without decor’ so costumes, props, and scenery were minimal and allowed the audience to concentrate on the writing and acting. Both of which were first-rate. All four actors brought their respective characters to life really well and, with one exception, I felt I knew each of them by the end. The exception was Markus Metz who, to me, didn’t feel as fully formed as the others and left me wondering about him and his relationship with the state. However, that is a minor thing and the four actors all work well both as finished characters and people.
Director Esme Hicks makes really good use of the stage area – which must have been difficult seeing as how there was the set from another production on the stage – and it really did feel like a cold war soldiers office with its spartan furniture and decor. My one issue was with the voices on the radio which, probably deliberately, were slightly difficult to discern from where I was sitting – and by the way, every radio operator knows you end a conversation with ‘out’, never ‘over and out’
Summing up then, I really really enjoyed Border Men. The story was a pure cold war thriller worthy of Len Deighton. It was gripping, and enthralling and, going by the conversations I heard as we were leaving, I wasn’t the only one that thought so. A couple of minor points discussed above would have made it perfect, but, to be honest, it came across as a really excellent and finished piece of work.
Review by Terry Eastham
The play tells the story of Sergeant Dieter Hertwig, a lonely East German border guard who intends to defect to the West. After he is interrupted mid-escape by a more junior soldier, he must adapt his plans and cover his trail, else risk losing everything.
Chris Barritt as Dieter Hertwig
Jonathan Cobb as Klaus Hubert
Connor Mills as Wolfgang Schafer
Andy McLeod as Markus Metz
Phoebe Hames as the voice of Monika
King’s Head Theatre
London, N1 1Qn
May 27th to 3rd June 2017