The last song I expected to hear playing over the speakers as I entered the space for I Am My Own Wife, was "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer. But the purpose is later made clear as we learn about the extraordinary and intriguing life of German transgender woman, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who survived both the Nazi and the Communist regime. While that might be a valid reason to admire her, it is not a guarantee that she was also a hero.
American playwright Doug Wright, travelled to Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and after a series of interviews with von Mahlsdorf totalling hundreds of hours, wrote I Am My Own Wife. Thus, the show is not just about von Mahlsdorf's life but also Wright's own role in this tale and the impact that the experience of trying to get inside the head of this enigmatic person had upon him.
Ben Gerrard is simply captivating for the entire one-performer show and his German and American accents are well-maintained with great pronunciation and intonation. There is a recording of Wright's voice that is played to the audience and upon hearing Gerrard's impersonation of it, you would not be blamed for believing it was the same person. You may also find yourself unable to take your eyes off Gerrard as he faultlessly jumps between 35 varied characters, and his constant eye contact with the audiences draws you in, as if he is telling this story only to you.
Similarly building on this intimacy is Hugh Hamilton's sleek lighting design, supporting the tension of the narrative with spotlights anticipating Gerrard's moves and changes. Shaun Rennie's sharp direction ensures that these movements are made with purpose and used to construct a stronger connection with the audience. Meanwhile, the minimal set design by Caroline Comino allows us to focus on Gerrard's words and when set pieces are used, they are used creatively, effectively and with the same skill of not detracting from the story.
The show leaves some deliberate ambiguity as to how much of a hero Charlotte von Mahlsdorf actually was: the threat of death was very real back then and hard choices had to be made. I Am My Own Wife doesn't pass judgement or draw any conclusions: instead it lets us wonder about the life a resilient person led, who survived against the odds in a world that was set on destroying her.
Click here to read my interview with Ben Gerrard.
Venue: fortyfive downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Season: Until 5 February | Tue- Sat 7.30pm, Sat 28 Jan & Sat 4 Feb 4pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: $45 Full | $35 Conc
Bookings: Midsumma Festival
*Original review appeared on Theatre Press on 24 Janury 2017.
Photo Credit: Harvey House Productions