I Am My Own Wife at The MAC

Prime Cut tell the remarkable true story of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who murdered her Nazi father, at The MAC

Lothar Berfelde was a Berlin boy who dressed as a girl, had an abusive Nazi father, and pummelled him to death as a teenager. Somehow Berfelde, now transgendered into she, and renamed Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, survived the brutally conformist Nazi and Communist eras.

Fast forward to the 21st century. In 2003 American author Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife premieres on Broadway. It tells von Mahlsdorf’s extraordinary story, winning Wright a Pulitzer prize in the process, and stirring international interest in the remarkable central character.

Now, nine years later, Northern Irish audiences have an opportunity to encounter the von Mahlsdorf phenomenon in Prime Cut Productions' new production of I Am My Own Wife at The MAC in Belfast.

The play has a large cast of characters (36 in total), all played by one actor, Dubliner John Cronin. During a rare free moment in rehearsals, I ask – is it as crazily demanding as it sounds? ‘It’s very complex!’ Cronin concedes, chuckling. ‘But in a way that’s the joy of it. I’ve never played anybody like Charlotte before, and the audience won’t have seen a character like this.’

So how has Cronin prepared to adopt the persona of this unique individual (pictured below)? ‘We looked at the real person,’ he replies. ‘We have some documentary footage of Charlotte herself. We have her autobiography. A lot of stuff has been written about her. So we looked at that, and moved from there.’

There is also the small matter of the 35 other ‘characters’ Cronin has to personate in the telling of Charlotte’s life story. Is it perhaps a touch difficult remembering where you are in the script? ‘It can be really hard!’ laughs Cronin. ‘But in terms of switching from one character to another, a lot of the time it’s the story dictating where you go next. So there’s a logic to it. It’s very well written in that sense.’

Cronin highlights the paramount importance of having a good director to work with in a play as complex and multi-faceted as I Am My Own Wife, with no other actors to spark off or take cues from at the point of live performance.

‘As an actor you’re relying on your director a huge amount in this play, because you can’t see the wood for the trees. Technically, vocally and physically, there’s so many things you have to do to differentiate characters, so many little things to remember. You need to have complete trust and faith in the director’s overall vision.’

The director Cronin is talking about is Prime Cut’s Emma Jordan, who readily acknowledges the difficulties involved in bringing such a complicated project to fruition. ‘It’s sheer masochism on my part!’ she laughs. Joking apart, Jordan is quick to emphasise that I Am My Own Wife has ‘a fantastic human story at its heart', despite the fact that it’s undoubtedly demanding on a technical level.

‘I was frightened of it for a very, very long time,’ she continues, ‘because I’d never directed a one-man show before, and because there are multiple characters. But the more I read the play, the more I trusted the story. It ends up telling itself.’

Although von Mahlsdorf’s path through life, and the development of her sexual identity, are far from typical, Jordan is adamant that she is far from being ‘a strange human being'.

‘We went to Berlin to research at the Gründerzeit Museum,’ an institution founded by von Mahlsdorf to exhibit the historical household objects that she collected avidly. ‘It’s now run by all of Charlotte’s friends, who spent three hours showing us round her museum.

‘It was so evident that they absolutely loved this woman with all of their heart, and she became very real for us. With all her moral ambiguity that Doug deals with in the play, the decisions that she had to make, the compromises to preserve her freedom, she is a really endearing, lovable character.’

‘She’s so human,’ interjects Gillian Mitchell, director of programmes at The MAC, who was instrumental in bringing I Am My Own Wife to the venue. ‘She messes up, she makes bad decisions. She’s duplicitous, the way all of us are. You just connect with her.’

And what of the character’s transvestism? Is it one of the play’s major issues, a key unlocking the deepest recesses of von Mahlsdorf’s inner being?

‘To be able to live like that, in that era, was incredibly courageous,’ responds director Jordan. ‘So in that way it’s interesting that she was so unapologetic for who she was, from an early stage. She lived as a cross-dresser from when she was 16-years of age.’

Both Jordan and Mitchell agree, however, that Wright’s play is about far more than one specific individual’s sexuality, her quest for personal freedom and fulfilment at a particular historical moment.

‘I think the play is more interesting on a political than on a sexual level,’ says Jordan. ‘In this part of the world we have a post-conflict society. We’re dealing with our history all the time, the decisions that people have had to make during remarkable times. Which is exactly the same as what happens with Charlotte.

'Can we make a judgement call on the decisions an individual human made, who lived through an extraordinary time? We deal with those questions every day in Northern Ireland. So politically it’s actually very interesting, the questions that are asked in the play.’

And although the process of rehearsing one actor playing 36 different characters has demanded unusually high levels of concentration and intensity from the director (‘Completely exhausting!’ laughs Jordan), it’s clear she is delighted by ‘the charm and charisma’ John Cronin brings to his portrayal of von Mahlsdorf, not to mention his sheer physical and mental stamina.

Add what Jordan calls ‘magical’ designs by Ciaran Bagnall, full of ingenious tricks and surprises, and the stage is set for what is possibly the boldest production yet seen at The MAC since it opened in April.

‘Hugely important,’ is how Mitchell views the staging of a play as radically individual and thought-provoking as I Am My Own Wife at Belfast’s newest performing arts venue. ‘Prime Cut are bringing something that is hugely ambitious, and interesting, and worth doing. You get that in spades when you’re working with Prime Cut. And it’s why The MAC exists.’

I Am My Own Wife runs in The MAC from September 18 to October 6.