Doug Wright’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning one-man play I Am My Own Wife tells the story of German Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, and her life as a transvestite woman and art historian throughout the Nazi and Communist regimes. A period throughout which both artistic expression and LGBTQ rights were all but completely squashed.
Based on von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography of the same name, Wright became intrigued by the book and, after gaining her support to adapt the story into a play and obtaining funding to research and write, began a series of taped interviews with his subject. Wright inserts himself and this writing process into the tale, as the solo performer (Ben Gerrard) breaks from playing von Mahlsdorf to characterise dozens of other roles including Wright himself. It is an extraordinarily difficult piece for one actor, requiring a highly detailed and finessed performance that Gerrard rises to without raising a sweat.
Born in 1928, as Lothar Berfelde, von Mahlsdorf’s tales of survival are quite extraordinary. From an early age, she showed a preference for wearing women’s clothing after stealing the chance to try on a dress while visiting her aunt. At the age of fourteen her father, a member of the Nazi party, forced her to join the Hitler youth and shortly thereafter her mother left the family during the German evacuation in the latter part of WWII. This lead her father to bring an astonishing ultimatum upon the child that resulted in Charlotte being sentenced to juvenile detention, a circumstance that potentially saved her life.
After being released at the end of the war, von Mahlsdorf worked as a second hand goods dealer and took to wearing dresses and feminine attire full-time. As Germany was divided under the communist regime, she took the opportunity to save historical everyday items, eventually amassing a collection that became East Berlin’s Gründerzeit Museum; even saving the entire bar from one of the city’s shuttered gay clubs and reconstructing it in the cellar of the building. For years, the museum, under von Mahlsdorf’s care, not only preserved everyday art pieces that would most certainly have been lost to looting and/or the corruption of the authorities of the time, but also provided a safe meeting place for the homosexual community when such sanctuary was difficult to find.
However, von Mahlsdorf’s ability to preserve these things didn’t come without cost. Did she become an informant of the Stasi (the East German secret police) in order to retain her collection and the museum itself? As Wright begins to realise that not all of her stories have an absolute ring of truth or heroism about them, he starts to back away from the veneration with which he had set out.
Shaun Rennie caters his direction to the intimate space of fortyfivedownstairs, bringing the audience right into Charlotte’s life. Gerrard engages the crowd on all three sides with warm eye contact and Caroline Comino’s crafty set design allows minute playing spaces to open up all over the stage, which are taken full advantage of by Rennie.
Comino’s backdrop of newspaper clippings and official looking documents are evocative of the era but one cannot help but feel the few items of sawn off furniture aren’t enough to fully conjure the thoughts of von Mahlsdorf’s antiques collection. A grander suggestion of the antiquarian’s obsession would have brought greater balance to the focus of the oppressions demonstrated in Wright’s play.
Hugh Hamilton’s lighting design considers its subjects well as does Nate Edmondson’s excellent sound design.
This is a production of very high quality. Gerrard gives an astounding performance and the Charlotte von Mahlsdorf story is an intriguing and challenging one. While the story’s conclusion may be ever so slightly dissatisfying, it’s a pleasure to have this thought-provoking play visit Melbourne as part of the Midsumma festival.