Monday, December 1, 2014

Not a man in sight: Henry IV, and Man to Man, by Manfred Karge.


As I clapped at the end of an entertaining performance of Henry IV at the Donmar Warehouse, it struck me that in my last four visits to the theatre, I had not seen one man on stage. This trend started a couple of weeks back, when I saw Martin Parr's beautifully realised "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang". Actresses Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro were so compelling, I was lured back the following evening. Sitting in the ruins of the Rose, I was even more swept away with the heady brew of sonnets, cello and narratives of loss.

The next women-only venture was a mistake, actually. I thought I had booked a ticket for Hamlet, so turned up at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park ready to marvel at a finely wrought analysis of mind. Turns out, I had got there a week early, so I asked what was on that night. It turned out to be Man to Man by Manfred Karge - a solo play about an East German woman faking being a man, through her whole life. Her husband had died, leaving her with no livelihood, so, after considering her few options, she decided to go into work disguised as her dead spouse. This saga through Nazism, post-war reconstruction and German reunification sets up a harrowing tale of deception, risk, humiliation and slow and unsettling transformation into a defeated, bitter, male retiree, who has almost forgotten his sex. The play was written by Manfred Karge, who joined the Berliner Ensemble in 1961 at the behest of Helene Weigel, wife of Bertolt Brecht. The Brechtian themes are strong, and actress Tricia Kelly bravely laid bare the frustrations of sustaining male identity amidst wild lurches in German society and identity, transforming herself into an embittered, drunk, unattractive pensioner. You could almost smell him.

In the programme, special mention was made of the translator of the script, the late Antony Vivis, who produced an inventive, jarring and sometime rhyming word flow. Listening to the rhythms and juxtapositions made me realise the crucial role of the translator in art such as this.

Later on in the bar, an attractive well dressed woman  breezed in and greeted friends around the table. I realised with a shock, this was Tricia Kelly, who only twenty minutes earlier had festered resentfully in stained trousers.

A week later, I got a standing ticket for Henry IV, which was set in a women's prison. Effectively, this was most of the glorious Part 1 with the main bits involving Falstaff and the rise of Hal from Part II added on. This was highly entertaining, but worth seeing for one overwhelming reason - Harriet Walter playing Henry IV. Shakespeare was cautious in his portrayal of the usurper King, and the role thus has rather limited, subdued material. Walter, however, used these lines with such world-weary authority, that she shed new light on the whole role. No longer a marginalised part; with Harriet Walter, Henry IV reclaims the play that bears his name. It was an amazing performance.

Tomorrow I'm off to see the Hamlet I had intended to see last week. Looking forward to it - though seeing men on stage will be something of a novelty. 

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