Perhaps it’s because I enjoy a good musical as much as I enjoy a good play, but in the defiance and self-confidence of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (Steven Mann) in I Am My Own Wife, I could almost picture her singing ‘I Am What I Am’ from La Cage Aux Folles, particularly when she declared, “I still do what I want”, despite being forced by the Stasi to ‘inform’ on others. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928-2002) lived in Nazi Germany and then in East Germany, where even “tanzen ist verboten” (dancing is forbidden), or at least it was. While there were very stringent punishments for gay men, as the Third Reich saw homosexuality as a contagious disease to be purged from society, the same philosophy did not seem to extend to transsexuals like von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde. Von Mahlsdorf was never imprisoned or punished by the state for her choice of lifestyle. (She was sent to juvenile prison at one point, but this was for a crime against the person, not for her sexual orientation.)
This production, then, makes distinctions between various characters, entirely by body movement and alterations in tone of voice and accent. Even the one costume change in the published script is dispensed with here. There are some broad strokes as certain characters, especially a rabble of journalists aggressively firing questions at von Mahlsdorf, only have a couple of lines or so, never to appear again.
A show that features a distinctive character who founded the Gründerzeit Museum, a museum of artefacts from the 1890s and 1900s – according to the script – could have as grand a set as a production’s budget could extend to, given what was apparently in it. This production has gone for a minimalist, but not spartan, approach – and it works well in this studio space, leaving the stage uncluttered.
This is a personal story, not an authoritative biographical account, not least because of inaccuracies in official Stasi files, and the evasiveness of von Mahlsdorf to answer directly some of the questions put to her by Doug Wright, an American playwright who wrote to von Mahlsdorf requesting an audience with her, unsure whether he would get a reply. One meeting led to another and another, until, in short, Wright felt he had enough material to write a play, namely this one, I Am My Own Wife. He himself, therefore features in the play, as at least two dozen characters.
For this reason, the show could benefit from having one additional actor. As I understand it, a production in the United States in November 2016 used four. With just one performer, as this production does it, a conversation between Wright and von Mahlsdorf was in danger of becoming farcical, and a later three-way conversation even more so. The lighting (Alistair Lindsay) is excellent throughout, helping to portray the darkest recesses of the museum or the bright lights of a television studio with equal credibility.
The understated manner of Mann’s performance as von Mahlsdorf says much about quiet resilience, rolling up proverbial sleeves and getting on with things. It’s a British Ministry of Information slogan, but ‘keep calm and carry on’ is a message that von Mahlsdorf personifies. Mann’s performance as so many other people demonstrates versatility and an impressive vocal range. I couldn’t work out what sections of von Mahlsdorf’s stories were entirely true and which were to be taken with several pinches of salt, though this production is as much of a work of art as the finest objects in the museum that it celebrates. A charming and compassionate performance.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Celebrated museum curator, survivor of a brutal childhood and successful navigator of both Nazi and Communist regimes, her life spans 50 years of the most difficult and shameful periods in 20th Century Europe.
Charlotte’s survival is a complex saga of courage, self-discovery, dedication and heartbreak made even more remarkable as Charlotte was born a man. Her steadfast refusal to compromise her values and identity, made her an inspiration for many, but a target of vilification for others.
Doug Wright’s play, written for one actor who portrays Charlotte and the vast array of characters involved in her life, won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize when it was first staged on Broadway. It’s a truly extraordinary piece, and one that is not easily forgotten.
30th May – 3rd June 2017
19:45 and 14:45 (Saturday Only)
Running Time: 1hr 50min
Wimbledon Studio Theatre
93 The Broadway,
London, SW19 1QG
Producer: Bob Bailey
Director: Val Colins
Actor: Steven Mann
Production Manager/ Lighting Designer : Alistair Lindsay
Sound Operator: Sarah-Jane Vincent
Set Designer: Stuart Yeatman
Production Assistant: Helen Lindsay
Stage Manager: Grace Lindsay
Marketing Designer: Trevor Reaveley
PR Manager : Francesca Mepham