Man to Man

Man to Man

© Mike Kwasniak

Park Theatre (London)

When Tilda Swinton first played Manfred Karge’s trans-gendered Max Gericke in 1987 (Traverse, Edinburgh, Royal Court, 1988), it and she became a cause célèbre. Directed by Stephen Unwin, Karge’s extraordinary portrait of pre and post-war Germany seen through the eyes of a crane-worker’s widow who takes up male identity proved mesmerising as a piece of socialist surrealism with Swinton, just beginning to make her name, clad in y-fronts and bovver boots.

In the intervening 25 years, much has changed, not least the finale to Karge’s script to include the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Now Tricia Kelly has taken on Karge’s  monumental role reprising her performance last year at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre.

Kelly’s is a wholly different interpretation, but no less compelling. It’s still rare enough for women actors to cross the gender divide. Slumped in a chair, her transformation is astounding. Hair slicked back, bulging crotch, she gives every semblance of an embittered old working class soak. When she begins, she is male but as the tale expands, her female is incorporated, side by side.

`Max’ – for that is the `fella’ – was a German crane-worker who married young and died early from cancer. `Ella’, to survive, decides to adopt his persona and `pass’ as a man. As `Max’, Ella encounters male banter from her colleagues, the rise of Hitler, becomes an SA officer and land worker (also enjoying the farmer’s `pleasure’), experiences the East/West divide and finally reunification.

More rooted in realism and with surprising resonances for us today – you can imagine him in the local pub – like Brecht’s Mother Courage (no surprise that Karge worked with the Berliner Ensemble), Max is shown being constantly forced to compromise his humanity to avoid poverty.

The cost is great and not least as a woman. On an empty stage with only props for company – baggy trousers, one red shoe (echoes of the Grimms abound in Karge’s imagery), a pile of earth, a lamp – Kelly commands absolute attention.

Man to Man, speaking volumes about the life and times of the ordinary German worker over half a century, proves still as instructive as it is moving in Kelly’s superb performance.

First published in Reviewsgate