Reviewed by Frank McKone
Charlotte von Mahsldorf, 1994
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, replied Ich bin meine eigene Frau to Mrs Gretchen Berfelde when she asked her cross-dressing son “Don’t you think it’s time to get married?”
It has been used as the title for a German language film (Rosa von Praunheim, 1992) and a play (Peter Süß, 2006). Though “I am my own wife” is the translation which has been used by Doug Wright for this play, it may also be translated as “I am my own woman.” Seeing Robert Jarman’s performance I think I prefer “woman” to “wife”. It’s Charlotte’s independence – as a person facing the forces of humiliation throughout her life from her Nazi father, through the SS, the East German Stasi, to neo-Nazi skinheads and her treatment as a celebrity transvestite in later life – that forms the central thread of this production.
The final twist – not represented in the play – is that her family refused to accept "Ich bin meine eigene Frau - Charlotte von Mahlsdorf - 18. März 1928 - 30. April 2002" as the inscription on a memorial at the Gründerzeit Museum which she founded. Despite money for the memorial being raised in a public appeal, the inscription reads "Lothar Berfelde, 1928 - 2002, genannt Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Dem Museumsgründer zur Erinnerung" – Lothar Berfelde, 1928 - 2002, known as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. In memory of the (male) founder of the museum – denying her courage in public as a transvestite and exposing the persecution of homosexuals in the Third Reich and in Communist East Germany.
Wright’s play is a potential nightmare for the solo actor who plays not only Charlotte, but some 40 characters, including Wright himself in the process of interviewing and corresponding with Charlotte from 1993 until her death. Jarman successfully carries off the transitions between one character and another, almost entirely in the one costume representing Charlotte in black dress, headscarf, heeled shoes and a row of pearls. His skill is not only in mime as he speaks to a space as one character and then turns to reply from the other direction, but in representing each character’s specific body movement, facial expression and especially voice – both in accent and tonal quality in English and in German.
It took me a little while to get used to what seemed to be a rather slow beginning, but it was the right approach not to hurry us. It wasn’t long before Charlotte, Wright and each of the lesser characters seemed real, and at curtain call there was a genuine sense of appreciation from the audience for the quality of Jarman’s work.
His acting was supported by a touring set which seemed huge in the Street 2 Studio – achieving exactly what was required to establish the Museum location. The properties department excelled in providing full-scale items like the horn phonograph with original Edison cylinders and especially in the beautiful small-scale replicas of items from the Museum revealed one by one from a silk-lined padded display box. On the technical side, the lighting was evocative and precisely designed and managed for each situation and mood, while the audio was particularly effective when, for example, we seemed to hear original 1890’s wax cylinders being played on the phonograph which morphed into surround sound.
I particularly appreciated Lotte Lenya singing Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera and other Weill / Brecht songs as background sound, placing Charlotte and her story into the context of criticism of authoritarianism and corruption. I might have added:
What keeps a man alive?
CHORUS AND MACHEATH:
What keeps a man alive if not the hours
He spends devouring, tearing, killing all that he can?
That’s how man lives his life, he has the power
To make himself forget that he’s a man.
I can only say finally that the value of the play in exposing the awful nature of the regimes Charlotte managed to survive through, and the warning her experiences provide for us – that civil society is a delicate flower which can all too easily be turned into a grisly thistle by the violent and power-hungry – was well-matched by the quality of this production.