Whilst talking about carnival, director Julia Taymor, writes `there is a topsy turvy moment when women become men and men become women`. It’s not an uncommon phenomena in theatre, from Shakespeare to pantomime and everything in between.
But in Manfred Karge`s Man to man there is a transformation of a different kind.
Ella Gericke, fearing destitution after the death of her crane driving husband, takes on his identity. It’s both an inspiring and harrowing story of human survival in the face of adversity. Like many such stories it does not have a naturally happy ending.
We first see Ella (played by Tricia Kelly) – eyes flickering madly, then staring out empty -towards the end of her life. Half drunk;
A beer, a beer, and sod the rest
The memories come tumbling out as the drink flows. Hitler’s cruises, the vastness of Germany, her earliest sexual experiences, her first husband (`a chronic drunk and brilliant with it `) and her second upon whose premature death the whole play hangs. She buries him under a grave which bares her name and in so doing resurrects him.
What’s to become of him? – the man I am or me, the woman I want to be
The ever increasing lies required to enact this resurrection over the next forty years become more and more humbling and constricting. Ultimately, years after the fall of the Berlin wall, in Eleanor Field`s design, Ella finally appears constrained by her own industrial wall. Drunk, helpless, surrounded by the detritus of a life not lived, but even then, not beaten.
Like most one person plays hanging onto the narrative thread is not always easy, and I did find myself dipping in and out of Ella`s story. The scripts occasional meanderings into rhyme seemed clunky, unnecessary and distracting. As befits Ella `s character, her memories and dreams sometimes tumble out haphazardly, but at other times they flow with shocking clarity. A subtle, ever present soundtrack (design John Chambers) hums away in the distance, underscoring every detail. Faint screams are mixed with children playing, vehicles rumble past and doors slam hinting at terror, futility and time passing. Tilly Branson`s production opens out the Mercury Studio and, in her unshowy staging, manages to provide both a sense of claustrophobia and vast emptiness.
Man to Man has not cured my inherent distrust of the one person play and at times it is a gruelling watch.But in Ella`s refusal to give in and her continued joie de vivre in spite of it all there is a curiously uplifting celebration of humanity and a sense of hope, given life through Tricia Kelly`s arresting solo performance.
[The true story that inspired Man to Man also was an inspiration for Brechts Good Person of Sichuan which is being directed by Nikolai Foster in the Mercury Main House. Two regular Eastern Angles playwrights, Joel Horwood and Nicola Weronowska, have also been commissioned to create two new short (fifteen minute) plays which run alongside a programme of debates and installations all of which respond to the question does poverty get in the way of doing good? For more information see here. The whole festival has been curated by Chris Hallam who was Assistant Director on Joel Horwood`s recent play for Eastern Angles I heart Peterborough.