‘I Am My Own Wife’ is an amazing play, based upon Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s biography. The play was first published in 1992 in German, and then translated into English in 1995. It won for the Dallas born, gay playwright, Doug Wright the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for ‘Drama’. Amongst his numerous other awards, is a Tony Award for ‘Best Play’. Wright also wrote the triple Oscar nominated, ‘Quills’, a 2000 film that starred Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade.
Born Lothar Berfelde, Charlotte was a German transvestite, who killed her father when she was 12 years old.
This play’s Australian premiere was in Tasmania, in 2009. It has taken eight years to reach WA, mainly because it takes an extra special actor to portray the almost 40 characters, single-handedly.
The Black Swan State Theatre Company is proudly presenting the WA Premiere. It is a Black Swan Lab Production, and can be seen at the Studio Underground, within the State Theatre Centre, 174 William Street, Perth. The 90-minute performances (no interval) commence at 8.00 pm, with the season running until 29th October.
The set is in the form of a ‘V’, with the audience viewing into the corner at the rear of the stage. The two jet-black sides are four metres high and eight wide. The walls are like vertical blinds, with each strip being a metre wide. They are painted matt black on one side, but can rotate to give various patterns or finishes. These blinds also have LED lights down their edges; this allowed them to present the LGBTI rainbow symbol.
The pine floor turned into a set of stairs leading up to the back of the ‘V’, again with hidden LEDs. There were several, 1-metre high, white plinths displaying Charlotte’s personal treasures, and beautiful miniatures. Some of the items would have been most difficult to source, not least the 1900 Edison Grand Concert polyphone with a wooden horn – a true rarity – and the mantel, bracket clock with a pendulum.
This was Set Designer, Cherish Marrington’s first major set, and it showed tremendous initiative, with a great ability to match the set to the script. The show was Stage Managed by Hugo Aguilar Lopez and his assistant, Amelia Trenaman.
The Lighting Designer, Chris Donnelly, has produced yet another stunning lighting plan. At one stage, there were up to several, complex changes per minute. Many of these split-second, light changes were linked to equally intricate sound effects.
The Sound Design was by Joe Lui. This was a true soundscape, with every minute having an interesting background sound. However, like to whole production, subtlety was the key. Some of the sounds, like clock ticks and chimes were almost imperceptible. The musical backing, composed also by Lui, was often simply a couple of soft piano chords, again hardly noticeable, but enough to add to the richness of the situation.
Charlotte (Brendan Hanson) enters carrying a polyphone and places it on a plinth. She welcomes everyone to her museum. She receives a telephone call. At the suggestion of his reporter friend, Doug gains permission from this 65 years old transvestite, Charlotte, to tell her story. He travels to Germany to meet her. What follows is a series of encounters and reminiscences, interspersed throughout with Doug’s own thoughts, feelings, and observations.
We see Charlotte throughout her life, from her bashful youth to the present day. We are there with Charlotte, when she signs a deal with the ‘Shield and Sword of the Party’ – the Stasi (The East German Ministry for State Security, one of the world’s most deadly, secret police bureaux that operated until very recently) is revealed. They spied on the population, by using citizens turned informants. Now in order to survive as a homosexual, Charlotte was their mole.
By the end of the play, one wondered, was she really a traitor, a heroine, or a murderer?
Dressed in the peasant costume of Charlotte throughout the play, Brendan Hanson grabs your attention, and draws you into the mind of Charlotte. In a mix of German, and English spoken with a thick German accent (voice and accent coach, Luzita Fereday, great work), we are fed the richly written dialogue flawlessly.
For the full 90-minutes, the pace was perfect, never a flicker as Brendan changed from Charlotte’s alto voice, to the bass voice of Wright. The dialogue flowed seamlessly; at times there were several international accents required. Whether spoken by men or women, whispered or yelled, Hanson moved around the stage, projecting every word with his whole body and facial expressions. With a different personality for each of the 40 characters, all were perfectly observed, and each with a varying cadence. So strong were the personalities that the audience soon forgot it was one man acting. The Pulitzer prize-winning script was bared to the essentials. The storyline was a blend of captivating threads, all feeding fascinating facts, and information. The story was riveting.
The costume designer was Cherish Marrington; she gave Charlotte a black peasant costume, of a black cotton blouse, buttoned to the neck. Her black (double-box?) box pleated skirt had a white trim. The costume was set off with a bandana and her trademark string of white pearls.
For years now, Director, Joe Lui, has brought a fresh and exciting approach to the Perth theatre scene, and given us quality every time, however, this has to be the ultimate in creative ingenuity.
I was fascinated when I saw the promotion of this show, but the attraction factor for me was very low. Thank goodness I went.
This production was magnificent in every section. The lighting, sound, costume, design were all unparalleled, and the performance – wow – supreme is an understatement.
This show will go down as one of the best of the decade. A MUST SEE.