In a recent review, I remarked that there weren’t too many interesting and untold real-life stories left to convert into plays. Maybe I was wrong, or at least overstating the case. Because here we have another multi-threaded, real-life story that’s not only managed to acquire numerous awards in its short history for both its writer and sole actor, but also turns out to be both fascinating as well as somewhat contentious.
‘I Am My Own Wife’ is based on the biography of Lothar Barfelde, a boy brought –up under the Nazi regime in Germany, who as a gay transvestite went on to live most of his life as a woman, changing his name along the way to the somewhat grand sounding ‘Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Performed by Jefferson Mays, and directed by Moisés Kaufman, it was written by Doug Wright who based his work largely (though not exclusively) on interviews he conducted with the subject in Germany in the 1990s.
After the end of the Second World War, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf found herself living under the repressive communist regime in East Germany – a case you might think of ‘jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire’. In spite of the obvious disapproval of the communist authorities, she continued to live openly as a woman, eventually leaving behind her male alter-ego completely in 1971.
While living in the East behind the infamous ‘iron curtain’, Charlotte continued her obsession of collecting a whole host of objets d’art – clocks, phonographs and such like – from the late nineteenth century, building-up a whole museum of artefacts. She also managed to secretly salvage the contents of an old Weimar gay cabaret (based for almost two centuries in the red light district of Berlin) that was closed by the communists, and to preserve them in the basement of her house. Her preservation and restoration activities earned her Germany’s Federal Service Cross in 1990 after the Berlin wall had dramatically tumbled, and Germany was once again unified. But controversy surrounding her activities arose when records of the Stasi – the East German secret police – revealed that she had collaborated with them, informing on some of her acquaintances.
Co-incidentally there was a veritable gaggle of personnel from ‘London Theatre Guide On-line’ at the performance, so opinions about this play were not exactly in short supply. But there was general agreement that the intimate nature of the play – a one-man show, about a kind of ‘one woman’ show – would have been much enhanced in a smaller and more intimate venue where the audience could have been brought closer to the sensitive action. But that minor quibble aside, all seemed to be captivated by both the story as well as the excellent portrayal by Jefferson Mays in the extremely demanding, but well-executed central role. It’s a very fine, and in many ways quite an exceptional performance, particularly as Mays has to play a whole host of characters (I think I lost count after about 20). But he brilliantly achieves the near-impossible, moving fluidly and skilfully between all the characters – little wonder, then, that his performance won him the 2004 Tony Award for Best Actor in a play.
Dominating Mays performance is the description of the central character herself, which has a certain automaton-like quality – more the well-rehearsed tour guide than the bon viveur, or over-bearing raconteur. Dressed simply in a plain black dress and over-large shoes, there is no hint of camp or flamboyance. Mays presents a basically unassuming woman, but one who’s driven by the overwhelming need to express her sexuality, and to collect and care for her cherished possessions.
Doug Wright’s script never sentimentalises his subject – though there’s a strong vein of admiration as well as fondness for his transvestite subject running through his piece. At the same time, Wright doesn’t dodge the question of von Mahlsdorf’s involvement with the Stasi. In the absence of conclusive evidence (the Stasi, like other secret police around the world, habitually doctored their records to make agents look more effective) Wright leaves us to make-up our own mind, but prompts us with the telling line “What would you do if the Stasi came calling on you?” I think most of us know what the answer to that question would be.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Dull production lacks animation and variety of tone." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " I can't help feeling that Wright's play is over-worshipful and under-investigative." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Thanks to Mays's increasingly creepy performance, with its gathering hints of psychiatric disturbance, it makes for spellbinding theatre." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Broadway triumph creates West End expectations that, for me, I Am My Own Wife doesn’t quite fulfil."