Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 5, 2015
Playwright: Doug Wright
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Ben Gerrard
Image by Rupert Reid
There is something unique about representing queer life on stage. Like many minority groups who have experienced persecution, LGBT stories need to create a legacy from hardship and struggles, so that injustices are prevented from recurring, and also for future generations to understand the histories from which they emerge. Unlike issues around ethnicity and religion that can have greater levels of visibility, LGBT identities have a tendency to be subsumed by a sense of normativity. The more gender and sexual diversity becomes accepted, the more it disappears from public discourse. A tension exists between the attainment of equality and the loss of nuances in individual differences.
Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife documents the controversial life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German museum curator and transgender celebrity, through the tumultuous years of the Third Reich and East Berlin. The play takes the form of a monologue, but does feature a multitude of minor characters, including the playwright himself. As von Mahlsdorf’s story unfolds, we are reminded of Wright’s presence as an interpretor of events, and correspondingly, the ambiguities between truth and fiction in the details being uncovered. The writing is full of charm and humour, with a plot that intrigues at every juncture. Vividly descriptive, we find ourselves immersed effortlessly in its slightly alien but seductive narrative.
Direction is provided by Shaun Rennie, whose outstanding use of space keeps our senses engaged and active, astutely controlling our perceptions of the show’s frequent contextual transformations, in terms of personalities, time and place. Excellent work on lighting by Hugh Hamilton and a subtle but highly effective set by Caroline Comino add greatly to the quality of unpredictability of the viewing experience. Nate Edmondson’s complex sound design is executed with impressive refinement and is noticeably adventurous with its concepts.
The play could however, benefit from a graver exploration into the darker aspects of von Mahlsdorf’s story. There seems a reluctance to portray her duplicitous nature with a stronger sinister edge, and we are kept somewhat distanced by that jovial artifice, perhaps just the way she would have wanted. Ben Gerrard is marvellous in the production. The speed and clarity at which he alters voice and physicality to depict all his different characters, whilst maintaining psychological accuracy and an air of authenticity through every change, is astounding, and very satisfying theatre. The actor exhibits wonderful commitment, along with an exquisite creativity that is remarkably intelligent and sensitive.
I Am My Own Wife entertains and fascinates. It is strangely lighthearted, given the brutalities that appear in the text. The production should hold more poignancy in its observations of war, Nazism and queerness, but as though borrowing from Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s strength of character, unpleasant parts of the story are diminished with an unconscious ease. There certainly are lessons to be learned here, that may pertain to personal identity or to social concerns, but they require an investment of thought and attention. Alternatively, a very pleasant jaunt is offered by the show, with resonances that last until the inevitably enthusiastic curtain call.