Review: I Am My Own Wife
Black Swan State Theatre Company
17th October 2017
“I am my own wife,” Lothar Berfelde told his mother when she suggested he would one day get married. Lothar would in fact become Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who founded the Grunderzeit Museum and survived both the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
Black Swan State Theatre Company’s production of I Am My Own Wife opened in Perth this week with actor Brendan Hanson centre stage. The Pulitzer prize winning play by Doug Wright is based on the playwright’s interviews and correspondence with von Mahlsdorf in the 1990’s.
It is a story worth telling. Von Mahlsdorf’s life as a transvestite in East Germany spanned two of the most repressive totalitarian regimes in history. She escaped her abusive father by murdering him and her teenage job clearing furniture from homes of exiled Jews led to a career as an antique collector while running an underground Weimar club on the side.
All of this was conveyed in a 90 minute monologue by Hanson, a one-man tour de force. Dressed in a black skirt and hair scarf he drew on a full spectrum of accents and subtle body language to delineate more than 30 different characters. It was an impressive and engrossing demonstration of the power of storytelling as family members, soldiers, international journalists and the central characters of von Mahlsdorf and Wright were brought to life.
Director Joe Lui’s sympathetic sound design included a warm electronic soundscape, the sound of distant bombs and snatches of cabaret playing through the various gramophones, polyphones, pianolas in von Mahlsdorf’s museum collection, items that ‘brought such joy’ during her childhood.
Hanson’s von Mahlsdorf was softly spoken with big eyes and a sideways tilt of the head. Wright was given an American drawl and voice laden with emotion, becoming increasingly agitated as he discovered his subject wasn’t as heroic as he had presumed.
von Mahlsdorf was an informant and betrayed close friends to the secret police. The precarious balance of her life were depicted in Cherish Marrington’s set design with its stepped flooring and shifting wall panels.
The play became increasingly about the nature of biography and the challenge of documenting history, an issue German artists in particular have been grappling with since the fall of the Berlin wall but apparently new to Wright’s character. “I am curating her now,” he says to a friend. “I need to decide what to edit and what to preserve.”
As von Mahlsdorf’s complexity becomes more apparent Wright’s naivety and idealism is also revealed. He struggles to write the truth about her, saying,
“But I need to believe in her stories as much as she does! I need to believe that Lothar Berfelde navigated a path between the Nazis and the Communists in a pair of heels.”
Towards the end the play lost momentum as the focus became as much about Wright as von Mahlsdorf. Thankfully von Mahlsdorf had the last word, using furniture as a metaphor for the complexity involved in being a human:
“A missing balustrade, a broken spindle, these are proof of its history… a record of living.”
I Am My Own Wife runs until 29th October at the Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA.
This review first published by Limelight Magazien 2017.