mon 20/11/2017

'The kaleidoscope of an entire lifetime of memories' | reviews, news & interviews

'The kaleidoscope of an entire lifetime of memories'

'The kaleidoscope of an entire lifetime of memories'

Maggie Bain on discovering the world of Manfred Karge's newly-revived 'Man to Man'

'I knew it would change me as an actor and the way I viewed the world as a person profoundly'Images: Polly Thomas

When director Bruce Guthrie first gave me the script for Man to Man by Manfred Karge, I was immediately mesmerised by the language, each of the 27 scenes leapt off the page. Some are a few short sentences, other pages long; every one a perfectly formed fragment from a unique and potentially broken mind, flipping from prose to poetry. There are no stage directions, no character description.

The script Bruce handed me was a photocopy of a typewriter copy he had been emailed by the National Theatre Literary Department; faded, smudged and with some of the bottom lines cut off, I had to piece it together, but it was worth the effort. Man to Man is one of the most exciting things I’d ever read. The perspective it offered on the horrific events of that period in history was one I had never encountered before. Bruce asked me if I wanted the role. It was an easy decision: I knew it would change me as an actor and the way I viewed the world as a person profoundly.

The hindsight with which I was perceiving these events was a hindrance

In simple terms, this is the story of Ella Gericke, a woman forced to adopt the identity of her dead husband Max in order to survive in 20th century Germany. Manfred Karge wrote the play in response to a newspaper clipping briefly detailing the story of a woman who had actually managed this for 12 years before the German tax authority caught her out. Ella doesn’t share this fate, instead she and Max take the audience on a rollercoaster ride through the kaleidoscope of an entire lifetime of memories, traversing childhood to retirement at the speed of thought. Just as you get a grip on who this person is everything changes, adaptation is the key to survival, and keeping up with events is not enough; safety lies in staying ahead of the game. As Germany rises, falls and reinvents itself she must become what it needs to remain hidden in plain sight.

I threw myself into researching the realities of German society prior to the rise of the Nazi party and through to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had studied the history of the Weimar Republic and World War II at school, but books such as the anonymous memoir A Woman in Berlin and films like Rossellini’s neorealist Germany Year Zero helped me access the particular everyday working-class hardships of the era. Bruce and I flew to Berlin to immerse ourselves in the unique atmosphere and culture of a city that openly bears its scars and commemorates those it most abused, while striving successfully not only to heal but to inspire.

Man to ManWe met with Manfred, who generously offered intimate details and sources of the phrases and quotations the poorly educated but keenly shrewd mind of Ella magpies on her epic journey. His greatest gift was the key to what makes her a heroic rather than tragic figure: her lack of self-pity – it was this revelation that shifted my instincts. The hindsight with which I was perceiving these events was a hindrance: Ella doesn’t dwell on notions of justice or fairness, she pauses only to plan – “A beer, a schnapps and the rest looks after itself.”

Two years ago Man to Man felt relevant, today it feels vital. The volatility of our current global political climate resonates eerily with this play. The interrogations of identity, sexuality, class, race and political ideology are startlingly apt. Carl Sagan said, “You have to look to the past to understand the present” – and if there was ever a perfect time to revisit Ella/Max, it is now: to understand the future we are creating for ourselves.

@maggieannbain

If there was ever a perfect time to revisit Ella/Max, it is now: to understand the future we are creating for ourselves

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