No one knows what it’s like to die, at least no one alive to recount the experience. Still, the seconds, minutes, and hours before death can be observed and communicated with as much precision as a dying person’s five senses and remaining faculties will allow. Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes is an incredibly lucid journey that leads us through the mind of a boy who suffered one of the most politically public deaths of the 20th century.
Bradley Doré performs alone on stage as Peter Fechter, an 18-year-old bricklayer trapped on the east side of the Berlin wall in 1962. He and his friend, Helmut Kulbeik (projected on stage by the pre-recorded voice of actor Morgan Grau,) plan to jump the wall to reach a better life. However, during the escape, Peter hoists Helmut over the final wall before being fatally shot by the border guards who leave him to bleed out where he lies.
Fechter’s journey from bullet impact to eventual death in Jordan Tannahill’s play is one of profound physical and auditory transcendence as his sense of hearing continually intensifies and he relives his past in an out of body experience.
Realistically, Fechter would be almost motionless while dying from his wounds. Here, Doré uses the whole theatre space to bring Fechter’s visions to life. The set, evocatively designed by Stephanie Bahniuk, is framed by a chair on one end, an ominous timer in a steel box on the other—red digital numbers tick down from 59:00 throughout the performance—and a cold coil of barbed wire down the center length of the stage. Symbolic items from key moments in Peter’s final hours are tangled within the wire. Things like construction boots, Western novels and period telephones hang from the barbs, frozen in time as if exploding from Fechter’s head. They all set the scene.
The night’s soundtrack, including Elvis Presley’s “Now or Never” and The Aquatones’ “Crazy For You”, help root us firmly on Aug. 17, 1962, but Cardiac Theatre’s production choices beyond the throwback tracks help root us deep inside Fechter’s head.
Misha Hlebnicov’s sound design and engineering in the intimate space was as good as it gets. Four meticulously placed, yet discreet floor speakers mark the corners of the rectangular stage, while other speakers around the room provide uncanny depth. There’s only one person obstructing your line of sound at any given point depending on where you’re sitting in the two-row to a side corridor configuration of the PCL Theatre. As a result, your ability to perceive objects and characters through audio cues alone with extreme fidelity is remarkable. When Fechter shatters an invisible coffee cup in his kitchen, your eyes can follow the ceramic shards across the floor as if they were there. When a sparrow unfurls it’s wings and swoops over your head en route to a new roost, you can practically see the slipstream off its feathers as it tilts its wings and adjusts its glide.
And as Kulbeik ribs Fechter as they walk around the space, there’s no need to guess his height and position in relation to his friend, the furniture, or the cars on the street. It’s as much an accomplishment of sound design as it is of 59 Minutes’ airtight stage management, the calibre of which is expected at the highest levels of professional theatre. Doré’s pinpoint marking, his incessantly clear physical cues, and the superb directorial choices by Harley Morison all coalesce beautifully. Performing like Doré does alongside thin air with such dynamic movement, acute timing and believable emotion is a praise-worthy feat.
Doré’s socked feet dampen the sound on stage of everything except the characters’ voices and crafted flashes we’re intended to hear, but like seemingly everything else in 59 Minutes, it’s a decision supporting the narrative as well. Fechter and Kulbeik ditch their boots in order to run faster across the Death Strip waiting for them over the wall.
Even though the story’s outcome is predefined, the empathetic exploration of 59 Minutes is worth experiencing. Entangled in the barbed wire, past those suspended work boots, past the paperback Cold War-era books filled with hope, past the coffee pot—a symbol of Fechter’s strained relationship and morning ritual with the father he’s leaving behind—we’re left with only his tear-streaked face grasping for salvation as his last seconds tick away to zero.
In bringing to life the final moments of one of the most public symbols of East Germany’s Cold War inhumanity, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes succeeds in weaving the threads of human nature under duress into a poignant rope that every theatre fan should grab onto before it’s gone.