“Oh shit,” I exclaimed on Saturday afternoon, lying in the sun at South Beach. I had forgotten that I had a play to review that evening, and I had no one to go with. I sat beside my dad, who had flown in to Perth the night before for a work trip. I looked at him, he looked at me.
“Oh fine, I’ll go with you,” he said. I knew he secretly loved it.
I read out the synopsis for the play to him on the way home from the beach. I Am My Own Wife, a play written by Doug Wright, brought to life by the Black Swan Theatre company and directed by Joe Lui, explores the life of the famed German transgender woman, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who lived through the Nazi and Communist regimes of the twentieth century—and survived.
I had no idea what to expect from this play, but I was intrigued. My dad wasn’t quite so sure – I’ve got a bad feeling about this was written all over his face. I soothed his fears and we set off that evening to the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia in Northbridge.
The play is viewed in a small space, with minimal props and it stars only one actor—Brendan Hanson—whose one-man show, jumping between more than 30 characters and accents, was truly astonishing to watch. His quirky and comical characterisation of Charlotte’s persona was both hilarious and heart-warming. We were made to fall in love with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and her peculiar ways; made to feel as if we too were sitting with her in her little museum, listening to her stories about her childhood. I was in awe of her life and what she went through, from her abusive Nazi father, to the repressive State Security Service (Stasi) leaders knocking on her doorstep, to the Neo-Nazis threatening her as an older woman in the 90s. Her life is a testament to the strength and resilience of the queer community during those difficult times.
Yet, like listening to your grandma babble on about what life was like “back in her day,” this became very old, very quickly.
I Am My Own Wife is a collection of memories upon memories. Jumping between different decades and different people, it was the almost intelligible ramblings of an old woman glorifying her beloved museum of antiquities, of broken clocks and dusting gramophones.
Although I really felt for Charlotte and could place myself in her shoes, I couldn’t maintain my interest in the play or the narrative (or lack-there-of). I could sense the audience shifting around me, stifling yawns and struggling to pay attention. At one point my dad began to quietly snore — which, with a sharp nudge, he quickly snapped out of. His snores didn’t reflect well on the production, although, to be fair, the long flight and glass of red wine he’d just finished weren’t exactly helping.
I struggled to figure out why this play was not great; not terrible, but not great. Charlotte’s cheeky smile and gay jokes will undoubtedly make you laugh, the history of her life is bewildering, and she truly is such a precious character, but the play fails in its inability to grip you and hold your interest. There are so many unanswered questions, but not in a good way.
Although difficult to ascertain, the main conflict of the story was whether Charlotte really was a Stasi informant and worthy of the Order of Merit, which she received for founding her museum and saving the German arts during eras of repression. A story without a resolution will always flounder, and this one is no exception. There was no real motivation for Hanson’s character, and I felt like I was wading through someone’s random memories. The play was sluggish, and tedious, as a result.
Apart from a few scenes, including the interview between Charlotte and the grinning, crowd-pleasing television presenter, where we either felt like we were there in the room with her or we were made to laugh, this play was, ultimately, quite disappointing—my dad’s snoring attests to that!
I Am My Own Wife is running at Studio Underground until October 29.