‘You're an impossibility. You shouldn't even exist.’ These words of American author Doug Wright, quoted in his award-winning play I Am My Own Wife, perfectly summarise the central problem involved in staging it.
How on earth do you go about making the truly remarkable story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, transvestite, father-killer, sexual libertarian, and obsessive collector of gramophone recordings and old furniture, believable?
Charlotte’s survival of both the Nazi era and its repressively paranoid East German communist successor, seems scarcely credible. She was many things those foul regimes thought execrable, and sought to eliminate. How could she possibly have lived through them?
The key was in von Mahlsdorf’s personality – her wit, her charm, her resourcefulness, her intelligent adaptability. She was the archetypal punching clown: you knocked her down, but she got up again, something she kept doing for the entire six decades of her adult existence, till her death in Berlin a decade ago.
The main thing to be said about Prime Cut Productions’ new staging of I Am My Own Wife, which won Doug Wright a 2004 Pulitzer prize, is that in Dubliner John Cronin the company has found an actor who is fully equal to the daunting task of making real to an audience the incredible Charlotte von Mahlsdorf story.
For Cronin, the show (a one-hander) is certainly demanding on a technical level. He has 36 characters to personate, running the full gamut of von Mahlsdorf’s lifetime, and involving the actor speaking English, German, pidgin German, pidgin English, and a range of different American accents. For Cronin and voice coach Peter Ballance, the midnight oil will undoubtedly have been burning.
Doing all these parts convincingly (which he does) is not, however, Cronin’s principal achievement. That lies in the sheer warmth and charisma that he brings to the central role of von Mahlsdorf: her easy affability, the immediate connection she makes with the audience from lights-up, as her tall-but-true tale gradually starts to unravel.
Cronin’s a natural storyteller, bending confidentially over the footlights, wryly pointing up the absurdities of other characters’ behaviour, and lingering fondly over the details of the historic household objects von Mahlsdorf has rescued from destruction, to found her beloved Gründerzeit Museum in Berlin.
Cronin, guided by Emma Jordan’s sensitive direction, paces the narrative beautifully, relying on von Mahlsdorf’s geniality and humour to warm her story from within. There’s a natural ease of manner to his onstage deportment that dissolves away the idea that he’s acting, putting the audience directly in touch with von Mahlsdorf the person.
It’s a hugely endearing piece of acting, as it needs to be: any element of stridency in the character has the potential to exacerbate the potential sensitivities surrounding von Mahlsdorf’s transgendered identity, the cross-dressing, and the harbouring in her home of explicit homosexual activity.
In Cronin’s carefully modulated delivery of Wright’s script, these things turn out, rightly, to be side issues, small saplings in a darkened forest stalked by the twin spectres of murderous Nazism and, post-War, by the sinister repressions of Eastern bloc communism.
Against these brutal enemies, Cronin’s von Mahlsdorf stands out as a glowingly humane, civilising presence: brave, cunning, cussed, doggedly determined to be exactly who she is, and to live accordingly in a dignified, peaceful fashion.
Cronin’s consummate performance is framed by a set (designed by Ciaran Bagnall) combining the pleasing formal symmetries of a Biedermeier interior with a touch of bling and glamour. Large, gilt-edged mirrors line the walls, facilitating trompe-l’oeil effects which periodically dot the narrative, and a large chandelier hangs glistening from the ceiling.
At the play’s conclusion two scaffolded terraces are unveiled above the back wall of the performing area, revealing objects emblematic of von Mahlsdorf’s bent for antiquarian collecting – old gramophones, lamps, chairs and hand-carved furniture. Here, it seems, is the old man-woman’s legacy: von Mahlsdorf’s gone, but the memories live on, and her Gründerzeit Museum is still very much open for business.
I Am My Own Wife is probably The MAC's finest achievement since launching its strand of dramatic presentations in April 2012. Cronin’s is certainly the finest piece of acting so far seen in either of the building’s two performing spaces. If you’re at all interested in theatre, I wouldn’t miss it.
I Am My Own Wife runs in The MAC until October 6.