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Following runs in Wales and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Manfred Karge’s Man to Man comes to London this month for a limited run at Wilton’s Music Hall. Translated by Alexandra Wood, the play tells of Ella, a woman living in Nazi Germany who is forced to take on the identity of her dead husband. We spoke to the show’s sole performer, Maggie Bain, about taking on such a mammoth solo task, and working with directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham.
What is Man to Man about?
It is quite dark. Essentially, it is set in Germany just before the Second World War and a young Ella marries an old man called Max. It’s just before the rise of the Nazis so the economic situation is scary. Max gets ill from cancer, and unfortunately he dies. In order to keep the money coming in, Ella decides to bandage herself up, alter his clothes and go to work as him. The Nazis come to power and she’s forced to take on various disguises.
We look at the story all the way through to the fall of the Berlin Wall and beyond. She loses her papers along the way and end up stuck in one of these identities. It’s not exactly the life she chose, but it’s the life she’s adopted in order to survive.
And you play all the characters?
I play both the characters and I channel lots of different characters along the way.
Is it a challenge to embody all the different characters, or do you find it quite fun?
Both. There are some lighter moments, and they’re really fun to play, but there are some really dark characters that she meets along the way. It’s a real gift to be able to play around with different voices and different physicalities. Some of the places she goes to are quite dark.
Have you ever done anything like this before?
No. I mostly work in ensembles, so it’s very different to anything I’ve ever done.
Are there different skills to need to do a one-person play like this?
Absolutely. I’m really lucky in this skill to be working with two directors. One of them is Bruce Guthrie who is just fantastic with text. The other is Scott Graham [artistic director, Frantic Assembly] who has this phenomenal skillset for storytelling. I’ve worked with them both before so I have a good idea of how they both work. Having both of them to bounce off, and both throwing ideas at me, has been massively useful.
Do you have a favourite identity of Ella’s to play?
I do, actually. This time around we’ve discovered some really fun stuff with the workmates that Ella runs into. She’s leaving one day and one of the guys grabs her, takes her to the pub and teaches her how to play cards. It ends up being quite a threatening experience, but that character is really fun. Most of the characters have a bit more weight to them, so that’s really nice.
Has the piece changed much since you first performed it?
In some ways yes. We first did a very short run at the Wales Millennium Centre for about a week, and later that year we took it Edinburgh for the month. We had to change onto a smaller set, and that forced us to make some changes. This time around we’ve had as much time to play around with it as we had to rehearse it in the first place so we’ve really been able to drill down into scenes we didn’t get to spend as long on. We’ve found some really lively beats within them. But in essence, it’s the same.
What would you say to convince someone to come and see the show?
It’s an absolute rollercoaster ride through a period of German history that we know quite well, but from a very different perspective. There’s a real working class voice throughout the whole thing. I hadn’t heard the story heard that way before. Some of the issues the play tackles are relevant to today. The gender issues, the rise of the class system. It’s frighteningly pertinent. It’s interesting to see the ways in which history is in danger of repeating itself, and the lessons we can learn from that.
Man to Man Tickets are available now.