The life of Wolfgang Borchert - an obscure German writer living in Nazi Germany, who was conscripted, imprisoned for treason and captured as a prisoner of war - doesn’t exactly scream “comedy”. And yet, it is the material of choice for Oxford-based Cosmic Arts in their latest production, Borchert: A Life.
Borchert: A Life premises itself in disarmingly transparent terms: Borchert in a play about himself, with the storytelling caught in tension between the troupe of performers and Borchert himself as the subject of his life thus far. Though on paper it sounds painfully ‘student drama’, Cosmic Arts manage to carry it off with humour, joy and occasional heart-wrenching tragedy. Though the production doesn’t go beyond relaying Borchert’s life story, it doesn’t attempt to either; what it does do, it does excellently. In some sense, that takes more theatrical verve than trying to find a deeper message or non-obvious narrative hook.
Occasionally, Borchert: A Life tries too hard to be funny, or milks its own punchlines with over-acted thumbs-ups to the audience. I wanted it to trust more in its comedy: Laura de Lisle’s writing has a natural dry wit to it, the cast self-deprecatingly vying for laughs feels slightly jarring and as though they don’t totally trust in the material. That said, the performances were broadly very good; the cast evidently have a command not just of comic timing and bending the fourth-wall to breaking point, but also of handling dark, heavy material with ease.
Overall, Borchert: A Life makes for a moving and surprisingly funny testament to memory. Genuine laugh-out loud comedy mixes with heartbreaking tragedy of circumstance in what is an enjoyable, engaging and compelling take on 20th Century history.