I Am My Own Wife is a gorgeous, startling play that shines a light on an intriguing person of our times.
It is based on the true-life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an eccentric and charming antiquarian transwoman, who was born in Berlin-Mahlsdorf and lived most of her life behind the Berlin wall, under the control of first the Nazis, and then later the Communists. This cleverly written and award-winning play was written by Doug Wright, who interviewed Charlotte extensively throughout the 1990’s, resulting in this clever, passionate play that is an ode to a startling and multi-faceted survivor.
The Powerhouse’s Melt programming is some of their strongest, so this show caught my eye. I will confess, however, I was woefully unprepared for the scope of the story and the complexity of the performance.
This is not just the story of a woman who survived the war in the damaged city, it is also a conversation about gender politics in dangerous times, a pointed comment about story-telling and history making, and a raised eyebrow at journalism. It is also a commentary on truth-seeking. How true is a history? How long is a history? Who gets to decide if a history is true?
It is good to be reminded of the dark days that came before. It is right to remember. ‘Lest we forget’ is a phrase most often co-opted for service men and women, but we should use it also to remember the outliers, the unique individuals, those that were the targets and the hunted, the lone wolves and the warriors.
“Neither raconteur nor Machivellian”, Charlotte was a staunch survivor, whose fascinating story is peppered with tidbits and insights into a world that is utterly alien to the present day. To live as a transwoman through two oppressive regimes whilst relinquishing not even a touch; it’s a remarkable story, and the audience were deeply moved. I want to highlight that it is not my place to dissect queer or trans issues, but they resonate strongly throughout the work, and are central to its beauty. For someone like me who is not part of that world, it is a great insight into the personal side of the issues that are still ongoing to this day in the lives of LGBTQI people.
Ben Gerrard take the stage as all thirty-something characters, masterfully weaving monologues, conversations, talk-show hosts, radio announcements and news reports into a grand and multifaceted performance. At first the cacophony of accents felt gimmicky, but as the play settled and the characters became familiar the jarring effect faded. Gerrard is supremely comfortable on the stage. It is a clearly a well-loved role and one he has taken great care with. This is not its first season, it is well tested, but it did not feel tired or lacklustre.
Caroline Comino provides a simple yet effective set, complemented by careful yet not ostentatious lighting design by Hugh Hamilton. A good play is one that takes you far from where you are, and it should not need every fancy new thing to do so. I am my own wife takes me all the way to East Berlin from the 40’s to the 90’s; we traverse an intricate museum, the queer club scene and a hundred other places besides.
The play is full of beautiful parables. Clandestine frivolity and shocking candour balance the heavy truths. The auto-biographical nature to Wright’s script is pleasing; he asks us to decide for ourselves what truth we want to keep.
Some of the strongest words are Charlotte’s own, especially when she speaks about why she never restores anything, lest it loses its character. All scars are sacred time-keeping, all fault-lines are memories, all cracks are to be treasured; they are the living proof. Is she talking about antiques or human bodies? You get to choose.
I Am My Own Wife is on at the Brisbane Powerhouse until April 8 2017.
Presented by Oriel Entertainment Group & Brisbane Powerhouse in association with MELT Present
Starring | Ben Gerrard
Playwright | Doug Wright
Director | Shaun Rennie
Lighting Designer | Hugh Hamilton
Sound Designer | Nat Edmondson
Set Designer | Caroline Comino
Photographers credit | Harvey House Photography