The production at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre by the theatre's then associate director Stephen Unwin of what in Tinch Minter and Anthony Vivas' translation was now known as Man to Man went on to become one of the era's defining theatrical moments, transferring to the Royal Court in London before being made into a film. Unwin followed up by directing a couple of youngsters called Ewan Bremner and Alan Cumming in another Karge play, Conquest of the South Pole, a play about a gang of unemployed lads re-enacting Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen's expedition which was also turned into a film. A year later the Wall came down and everything changed.
More than a quarter of a century on, while Man to Man remains a staple of German theatre, in Britain, apart from the odd sighting, at the Arches in Glasgow and Colchester Mercury in recent times, and despite rumours from a few years ago of Swinton reviving her role that came to nothing, it has all but slipped down the cracks. This is something Bruce Guthrie's new production of Alexandra Wood's fresh translation for the Cardiff-based Wales Millennium Centre aims to address in a staging that sees Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham come on board to navigate actress Margaret Ann Bain through an already gruelling play made even more physically demanding.
Given that Bain was put through her paces in the company's co-production of the boxing-based Beautiful Burnout with the National Theatre of Scotland she should be able to go the distance, particularly with Graham, Guthrie and Wood on her side. Even Karge, the seventy-eight year old veteran of the Berliner Ensemble who wrote it is fighting her and the company's corner, having alerted them to a scene he wrote following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and which now gives the play a very different ending.
“Manfred came over,” says Wood, “which was really helpful, because there are quite a few made up words in the text which don't really translate, so it was good to hear from him that they were just random words his mother used to say. We had the chance to talk to him about this extra scene, in which Ella rushes back to East Germany as soon as she can to look for her husband's grave, and there's a real tragedy to that. Manfred gave us a really good note about the end of the play, and now the video designer makes a lot of the Berlin Wall.
“I was really intrigued by the play when I read it. I loved its ambition and its epicness, and the way that the story of pretty much all of the twentieth century is told through this one woman dressed as a man.”
Guthrie was equally intrigued by the play when he read the script after being enthused by an interview with Unwin.
“He kept on saying how extraordinary it was,” says Guthrie, “and there's this really interesting mix of poetry and prose, so it's part fairytale, part grim reality. Ella is an amazing character, because there's absolutely no self-pity there, and the way it reads it's like we're being let in on a secret, the way we might think about people we sit opposite on the bus, but who we know nothing about.”
Karge initially wrote Jacke Wie Hose after being asked by his now deceased wife, the great Austrian actress Lore Brunner, to write her a piece. Karge had heard tell of a woman who, during the 1920s depression, assumed her husband’s identity to save his job.
“Later I realised that Brecht had heard about this woman’s fate as well,” says Karge today, “and had written a short story called Der Arbeitsplatz (The Job). The subject was very interesting as it combined the social problem of unemployment, a real life biography and the fate of a woman during the time of capitalism.”
Brunner played Ella/Max several times before she passed away, with one production in particular standing out.
“When she performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna I received a letter from an audience member which deeply moved me,” says Karge. “The letter contained an original 1930s newspaper clip that was about the woman that I had written the play about. As the article contained a portrait I was able to look at her face for the first time. To my great surprise I learned that she kept up her façade for twelve years, which I had never thought could be possible.”
To date there have been more than eighty productions of the play, which has been seen across an allegedly united Europe and beyond. For Karge, this “proves that people all over the world are able to identify themselves with this German biography.”
Karge visits each production when he can, and sees his lack of stage directions as liberating for actress and director alike.
“Great diversity can be created,” he says, pointing out that this new production“showed me a new perspective of the play that I hadn’t seen before.”
Of the scene he added after the Berlin Wall came down, Karge sees it as a necessity.
“Throughout the play there are a lot of events revolving around political revolution that would give the woman the chance to escape her façade,” he says. “She dreams of regaining her identity. Unfortunately the world she lives in is after all a man’s world, and even though she has to make a lot of sacrifices, her life as a man is much better. So the façade continues.”
Man To Man – Underbelly Topside, Aug 5-31, 5.40-6.55pm.
The Herald, August 4th 2015