Man to Man at Wilton’s Music Hall review ***


Man to Man

Wilton’s Music Hall, 15th September 2017

I am confused about this. Is it an expressionistic masterpiece that explores the nature of gender identity and German history through devastating poetry, or a piece of pretentious fuck-wittery which couldn’t be bothered to serve us up a coherent story? Was it a visual and aural treat using the best that lighting, sound, video and set designers can conjure up in this always atmospheric space, or a bunch of hackneyed theatrical tropes to mask the fact that the content was tired and banal? Was this an intense bravura one woman metamorphosis or an actor crawling up the wall in a baggy suit doing funny accents?

Truth to tell is was a bit of both but net, net I am pleased I saw it. This might, though, have been one of those nights when I should have been flying solo. Instead I roped in the SO and the TFP’s who I suspect got more sustenance from the curry beforehand than this work. And I have form with the TFP’s. It was the German connection you see. Still maybe next time I will get it right.

Man to Man tells the (true) story of Ella Gericke who is forced to assume the identity of her dead husband Max to keep herself alive in pre WWII Germany, Her struggle to evade exposure is set against the rise of Nazism, the war itself, the reconstruction of Germany and, finally, in an addition to the original play, the fall of the Berlin Wall. But this is no ordinary narrative. This is a memory play and Ella’s memories are, to say the least, personal, confused and distorted. Which means over the 75 minutes or so you have to be on your mettle to keep up. We see Ella forced to deceive her workmates and enter a masculine world fuelled by beer and schnapps. We see her rueing, I think, the absence of a child in her life. She gives up her own passport to a woman she cares for so that the woman might escape Germany. She has to avoid conscription but cannot bring herself to renounce her Max identity to do so. She denounces one of her neighbours. She ends up, I think, in the SA and has to kill to evade capture. She works in a factory after the war and conspires with the bosses to illegally bring in female labour posing as men. She returns to the grave of her husband.

And these are just the bits I can remember. The story is like a series of inchoate shards colliding through time (sorry that is the best I can come up with). It examines themes of identity, gender obviously, but also Germany itself over the period (I started thinking about Ella’s male/female divide as a metaphor for East and West though I may have got carried away with all the symbolism), as well as grief, loss, deception, alienation and power.

Now all this is portrayed by one woman, Maggie Bain, in one room, though this is as far from a monologue as it is possible to get in a theatre. She adopts a broad Glaswegian accent to portray the husband, which I fear to say, was not always as clear as it might have been. My ears and the Wilton space are to blame. This contrasted with the voice of Ella, though over time the separate identities seemed to bleed into each other. All I can say is that whatever Maggie Bain was paid, it wasn’t enough. The production, created by directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham, with a text translated by Alexandra Wood, from the original German, places huge demands on its sole actor, both in terms of voice and body. Mind you I can see why an actor would relish the chance to take this on. (The UK premiere saw the fiercely intelligent, chameleon Tilda Swinton take on the role of Ella which makes eminent sense).

Now apparently this is what German playwright Manfred Karge is all about. No lazy Anglo-Saxon naturalism for Mr Karge. This is the full-on, modern European theatrical experience (I know we are in Europe but you get my drift). But it isn’t dull, worthy and full of theory in a way that might imply. But it is elliptical and does ask a lot of the audience. So if you do take the plunge, for this production, which is off to Birmingham, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Liverpool (and even New York thereafter), or a future production, do bear this in mind. It looks and sounds amazing, with props, lighting, video, projection, sound, music, movement, even some puppetry, all used to maximum effect, but be prepared to relax into the moments when your theatre of the mind will be frantically asking “what the fuck is going on”.

Consider yourself warned.