Man to Man
Manfred Karge, translated by Anthony Vivis
Danielle Tarento & Mercury Theatre, Colchester
It is always a challenge for any actors to undertake the onerous task of a solo performance, in that they have to keep the audience engaged only by the power of their acting and, in case of text-based drama, by making the words shine through their refined abilities.
This is especially difficult when the historical backdrop is a serious one, that of Germany—from its chaotic pre-war period through the brutality of Second World War, to the economic miracle and the fall of the Berlin Wall—and the subject at hand is the suffering and the poverty of the common people involved, expressed by a script dense with imagery and poeticisms.
It is even more difficult if the show requires a radical process of transformation—from woman to man, in this case—as well as showing that such a transformation is false, enforced and troublesome.
This is what the actress Tricia Kelly and director Tilly Branson had to contend with by bringing the production of Man to Man by German veteran playwright Manfred Karge, from the Mercury Theatre in Colchester, where it was staged in autumn 2013, to London at the Park Theatre.
Ella Gericke takes on her dead husband's identity, Max Gericke, allegedly in order to secure an income for herself in pre-war Germany. Through the recollection of her wretched life events, it becomes clear that circumstances keep her from taking back her own identity, even after the war.
This, however, does not stop her from desiring to be a woman and even having an affair, as a woman incognito, with the owner of the plastic factory at which she works. If the disguise, the change of identity does not make total sense, it is because the play, despite the realistic tone in condemning social inequalities, stands as a metaphor for a German ‘fatherland’, an Arian manhood that is imposed, vile and artificial (it is all about ‘schnapps and beer’).
The underlying political message of the play even condemns the German post-war miracle for a wealth that is never shared with the common people. On stage, the transformation is radical in Kelly as a drunken miserable ‘butch’ who recalls her life with pain and distress.
It is indeed a strong and tense performance in its physicality and projection, of which Kelly should be proud, because we can see in her strained eyes, as she bows to the audience’s clapping after the end, the heart and soul she gave to embody this character. However, some tiredness from the obvious pathetic, continuously spelt out to the audience, can be felt very early at the start and in parts of the show.
The directing does not seem really willing to lift the script from a monotonous tragic. In some parts the script, in its beautifully poetic translation, by the recently deceased Anthony Vivis, would have probably required some irony and sarcasm, less self-pity.
Premièred at the Traverse theatre in 1988 under the direction of Stephen Unwin with a young Tilda Swinton, the original German play, with the title Jackie Wie Hose (‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’ in English), was written in the early 80s, before the wall fell in '89.
I am not sure why the references to the German reunification were added to the original script, and whether they served any purpose other than imposing more distress onto the poor Max/Ella who cannot find her husband’s grave in the East.
What does not help the show either is also the awkward sitting arrangement at Park 90. Used to and normally enjoying the theatrical experience in small black boxes, I found myself struggling for clear sight, especially at the times when the actress was sitting right on the floor.
Overall, one cannot deny the power of this solo performance and it is a pity that it hits the wrong note in a few places.
Reviewer: Mary Mazzilli