Reviews, Stage, Theatre

I Am My Own Wife review (Old Fitz, Sydney)

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It feels like a massive cliche to describe Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the subject of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play I Am My Own Wife, as “brave”, but it feels necessary to do so.
Charlotte was famously known as Berlin’s most distinguished transvestite (although language has evolved and she would probably now call herself a transgender woman) and lived through some of Germany’s most tumultuous periods as a transwoman, from the final years of World War II to the long division of Germany and the tense years after reunification. 
And Charlotte didn’t live out her 74 years quietly. When she was just 12 years old she killed her father, who had been threatening her with a gun. She bludgeoned him to death with a rolling pin and was sentenced to four years in a juvenile prison.
As an adult she lived just as provocatively, running her museum of furniture (her first love) and everyday objects from Berlin’s past for several decades. The museum was also well known as a hangout for the local LGBT community after several gay bars were shut down in East Berlin.
It’s extraordinary that she even survived.
American playwright Doug Wright first met Charlotte in 1992 while touring her museum on a trip to Berlin. He was immediately fascinated by this eccentric woman — who wouldn’t be? — and knew that there was a great play in her story. He was desperate to be the person to tell this story and does so beautifully in I Am My Own Wife.
It’s very much a showpiece for any actor who takes on the role of Charlotte (Jefferson Mays originated the role and won a stack of awards for his portrayal) and Ben Gerrard rises to the play’s many technical challenges with tenacity and great skill.
He plays a variety of characters, all of whom are clearly defined in terms of voice and mannerisms, capturing the curious, domestic steeliness of Charlotte and the writerly exasperation of Wright. There’s clearly great admiration and affection for Charlotte at the core of Gerrard’s performance — it’s the driving force.
Shaun Rennie has directed a vibrant, textured production which allows Gerrard to shine. There are a few moments where Rennie could pull back and simplify the onstage action a little (and Hugh Hamilton’s lighting is a little more complex than it need be), but his staging — particularly the use of simple miniature objets — is always smart and inventive.
The play is both a biography of Charlotte and the story of Wright’s relationship with her. He came into her life to write this play at a period when her stories were being refuted publicly in the German press, raising questions over whether she was the hero she first appeared to be.
It’s also a fascinating look into the artist’s process — when Wright’s inspiration turns out to be perhaps not exactly what he expected, he’s completely lost. He’s devoted so much time and money to unscrambling the riddle of Charlotte but he’s no closer to understanding her.
In the end, Wright does all that he can — he puts Charlotte’s story on stage, alongside all the difficult questions it raises about integrity, ego and history. We will never know the full truth (if it does, in fact, exist in such black and white terms).
And even if Charlotte did the things she was accused of, she’s still a remarkable and admirable woman.
[box]I Am My Own Wife is at the Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney until December 5. Featured image by Rupert Reid[/box]

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