German National Identity in Crisis: Review of ‘MAN TO MAN’ by Manfred Karge @ Park Theatre

Speaking as a German I can honestly say it is impossible to shake off feelings of shame when remembering our disgusting behaviour in the past. I live with an innate feeling of guilt for causing the First World War. And the Second. And the concentration camps. And the deaths. And the fact that Racial Cleansing even became a ‘thing’ connected to German history. The facts are unavoidable and we, as a Nation, remind ourselves daily of the past. It is literally etched into our cities and towns, and thus, into our National mentality. At pretty much every corner, you will find anything from a museum to a memorial to metal plaques in pedestrian zones (in remembrance of persecuted Jews), etc. in order to remind us of our crimes.

With the past Sunday marking 25 years to date after the Berlin Wall fell and today being Remembrance Day, I still feel like I have to apologise and make amends for my Country’s dark past, and this coming from a child born well after the Wall had already fallen.

The play ‘MAN TO MAN’ by Manfred Karge very successfully deals with this issue. It is a one-woman monologue tracing the story of Ella Gericke whose husband dies of cancer in the Weimar Republic in the 1930s. In order to fend for herself in the desperate times of the Depression, Ella calls for desperate measures. She takes on the necessary steps to become her deceased husband Max Gericke and takes over his job as a crane operator. In the decades to come, Germany is in a crisis of ever-changing national identity. ‘MAN TO MAN’, very cleverly, personifies Germany’s identity crisis in the form of protagonist Ella (/Max) Gericke. She must firstly cope with becoming a man, secondly be her own husband (the man of the house), and thirdly she must navigate a world of upheaval in which shape-shifting means bare survival: She is an SA prison guard during WWII, a farmer after the war, a factory worker in the German Democratic Republic and finally an unemployed (or retired) drunk in the new reunited Germany. Max describes herself as “topsy-turvey and back-to-front”, likewise Germany went through a significant series of identity changes in the matter of 50 years which leaves feelings of confusion, disorientation, eternally casting ourselves as the Bad Guy. Just like Max Gericke can neither be fully man nor woman, Germany is unsure as to who it is allowed to be.

In the Park Theatre’s production of ‘MAN TO MAN, translated by Anthony Vivis and directed by Tilly Branson, we are seated intimately around Eleanor Field’s set, designed with minute attention for detail: Max Gericke’s dishevelled GDR living room is littered with bits and bobs of mismatched furniture and Schnapps bottles. We watch her slug beer from the bottle eerily supported by John Chambers’ sound design; mashed up snippets of German television voices. Actress Tricia Kelly brilliantly masters the working-class physicality and male stature of the time, her powerful voice and imagination take us into her world of confused androgyny and identity. I find myself listening to her words in English but hear them in German. Powerful.

Most beautiful of all is how the narrative thread of Snow White is woven into the final moments of performance, a testament to Tilly Branson’s acute sense for direction. Snow White is a reoccurring image in the play; Max describes her husband as the dwarf to her Snow White when his body shrivels, overtaken by the cancer. Max pulls out a long red piece of cloth when she finds herself bewildered and drawn to the beautiful canteen lady Püppchen. Finally, a black pile of earth is thrown at the audience’s feet to represent the grave of Max’s deceased husband. When Max eventually comes to reunite with the grave she had to leave behind all those years ago on the other side of the Wall, she is told that the grave has been removed and is now occupied by someone else. Max mourns painfully for lost years and a lost life at the former grave site of her husband. She repeats the words: “White as snow, red as blood and black as ebony.” I recognise the familiar words of the Grimm folk tale read to me by my Grandma as a child. “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” Max continues, “Who is the fairest of them all?” She asks, looking at her weathered face in horror and all of a sudden I connect all the dots. I understand the facts. I understand my beloved Germany’s pain, struggle and hope for redemption.

‘MAN TO MAN’ in Park90 is on at the Park Theatre until the 30th of November.


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