Thursday 19 January, 2017
History is a muddy mingling of fact and fiction – truth warped through the prisms of emotion, bias, and sentimentality. Perhaps the only tangible, uncompromised connection we have to the past is found in material objects and even then, the value and reverence of those artefacts is an affectation bestowed by human beings.
It’s this tussle between reality and fantasy that sits at the heart of Doug Wright’s virtuosic study of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), a pioneering transgender woman and avid collector, who managed to live openly in East Berlin under the regimes of both Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Told as a succession of first-person accounts and whimsical anecdotes, I Am My Own Wife relays the story of its own creation, as Wright goes about chronicling Mahlsdorf’s remarkable life in a series of interviews, with hopes of turning this documentary into play.
At first, her very existence, having survived the extreme violence and danger of both fascist and communist ideologies, is both amazing and inexplicable. She is a precious and unique symbol of resilience and tenacious survival. Wright, a young gay writer from the United States, is fascinated and overawed by her impossible legend – a captivating tale of unlikely sexual liberation, brushes with death and devotional commitment to her collection of furniture, trinkets, relics and old recordings. Her home has become a ramshackle museum, but also in a sense, a kind of shrine to herself. Each lovingly preserved object has its own revealing story that in turn reflects another facet of Charlotte’s gentle, eccentric yet endearing personality.
Wright is besotted with his muse’s defiance and humanity, but his understanding of her is suddenly challenged when her involvement as an apparently “enthusiastic” Stasi informant is revealed in documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union. Confronted by this damning perspective on a person he has grown to profoundly respect, the writer is faced with a terrible personal conflict: “I need to believe in her stories as much as she does,” he laments. “That Lothar Berfelde navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the Western World has ever known – the Nazis and Communists – in a pair of heels.”
It’s this agonising epiphany that reveals the extraordinary complexity of this text, which is not merely a face-value biography, but rather an investigation of the fickle, malleable quality of history. The truths we trust, of both our personal and social heritage, are bonded by the connective tissue of subjective belief. Charlotte’s vilification by the media and other detractors paints her as the victim, despite earlier assertions that her betrayals sent close friends to brutal gulags. It’s clear that we are experiencing these events through the lens of Wright’s unrelenting affection for Charlotte – this is his truth, because history is but the hearsay of storytellers.
It’s a fascinating conceit, rich with detail and dramatic opportunity, but I Am My Own Wife’s most astonishing feat is that this densely layered narrative is told by just a single performer, whom during the show’s 90 minutes must flit between 36 different characters. Taking on this formidable challenge is Ben Gerrard, who first appeared in this production in Sydney back in 2015. The amount of time this text has had to settle and marinate in Gerrard’s mind is evident in the subtlety he brings to this account. With so many competing characterisations, of different genders, nationalities, ages and sensibilities, it would be extremely easy for each to be clumsily overplayed. Gerrard’s judgement, however, is forensically precise, both vocally and physically; there is never a hint of ambiguity in who he is inhabiting at any given moment and yet each character is convincingly understated.
There are moments of truly masterful flexibility, as a rapid-fire succession of different characters flash past like a cinematic montage. A tremendous level of craft underpins Gerrard’s performance – that it appears completely effortless is a credit to the calibre of his skills. At times there is perhaps a slight dearth of emotional extremes that might offer more pathos than we find in this production. No doubt, this restraint goes hand in hand with the need to keep so many characters under control.
Director Shaun Rennie conjures many worlds from Caroline Comino’s minimalist set, from a Prussian farm house to a seedy ’90s Berlin gay bar. The handling of the stage is clear, direct, but also quietly sophisticated in its nuances, using the fringes of the space to place various threads of the narrative in orbit around Charlotte, the still point of this turning world.
During its premiere seasons in New York, I Am My Own Wife transferred to the nearly 1000 seat Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, but seeing it in the far cosier surrounds of Fortyfivedownstairs, it’s hard to imagine this text playing to such a cavernous house. This is a story of powerfully consuming yet insular and secret fears: how our legacy ultimately survives us, for better or worse. The fact that this Australian production can express such depth while remaining so intimate says much about the stirring strength of theatre on this scale and why some of the finest shows in Australia are to be found in boutique venues.