Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham’s production of Manfred Karge’s one-woman play Man to Man is unexpectedly contemporary despite its 20th century setting.
Performed triumphantly by Maggie Bain, the play details the life of Ella Gericke, a young woman in Weimar Germany who is widowed when her husband, Max, dies of cancer. Through circumstances of desperation and necessity, Gericke is forced to assume the identity of her deceased husband, entering a murky, pre-war world of testosterone, sweat and Schnapps. It is however the blatant relevance of Karge’s gender identity-oriented text to the 21st century which is the production’s great accomplishment.
Based on a true story, Karge’s deeply expressionistic text lends itself naturally to the physical theatricality for which Guthrie and Graham are so well renowned. This feels palpably evident in the production’s masterful choreography which, when combined with the deft physicality of Bain, lends a much needed fluidity to what could otherwise be an awkwardly fractured piece of theatre.
Alongside Richard Kent’s astonishingly innovative set design and Rick Fisher’s expertly crafted lighting, it is however Bain’s accomplished embodiment of both the text and the physical that stands apart within the production. Bain’s zealous animation of an intricate web of characters and events is vital to creating the production’s unfaltering pace, establishing a crucial level of energy which she maintains throughout her 75 minutes on the stage.
Bain is, however, hindered by the seemingly endless cultural cross-references found throughout the production – most notably Andrzej Goulding’s video design – which appears to be a nod to expressionistic German cinema. Though at times clarifying Karge’s fragmented text, Goulding’s animation often feels out of touch with Bain’s electric presence on stage, slowing the pace of the show significantly and detracting from a stage Bain needed little assistance on.
In a similar vein, the use of sound within the production often feels excessively cinematic as it consists mostly of distorted music box tunes and echoed whispers, the repetition of which, around half way through the play’s 27 scenes, feels less sinister than it does reminiscent of the voice over found in the Herbal Essences advert.
It feels a text that would naturally lend itself to music, however the decision to use a cinematic, atmospheric underscore undermines what could have been formidably chilling moments within the production.
Yet, it is the relevance of shifting gender identities in 20th century Germany to today’s socio-political climate that gives the text’s weighty poeticism a pulse.
One of the production’s most tender moments, for example, is Bain’s portrayal of Ella running away from soldiers forcefully trying to pull down her trousers so as to prove her sex. At a time when dialogues regarding gendered identities have never been louder, the piece’s somewhat historical setting appeared at times all too contemporary.
As strong as Bain is, it is the unsettling pertinence of fascistic Germany to modern Britain that will linger in my mind.
Man to Man
Runs until Saturday 14 October
Photo Credit: Polly Thomas