No one knows how terrified I was by the fact of death…’
In 1987 Tilda Swinton launched her career at the Traverse with German playwright Manfred Karge’s one-woman play ‘Man to Man’. The piece was first performed in 1982, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and now, just in time for the 25th anniversary of this historical event, ‘Man to Man’ is on stage again at Park Theatre, London. The play is set in Germany in 1920s and tells the story of Ella Gericke – a woman who loses her husband when she is in her early 20s. In order to save herself from the economic depression, she is forced to impersonate Max and take on his job as a crane operator.
Ella’s powerful narration of past and present takes us through various war stories, intimate experiences and unbearable struggles. From a fantasy pregnancy, when the character shoves a pillow under her blouse to feel ‘how wonderful, and terrifying it is’, to the moment when she uses a gun to protect herself in those turbulent times of war. At first, every decision is about survival. Ella chooses to change her identity and take the job as a crane operator. But later on, we see the character emerging from her little world and facing the rise of Nazism, and the upcoming war, and whether she will be called for a medical exam to be drafted in action. In complete terror, while downing a bottle of liqueur, Ella screams – ‘A vote for Hitler is a vote for war, and war is bad for me. The nightmare is just beginning, Hitler’s got in. ’And as it goes, for forty years the character has to be ‘man enough to wear the fucking trousers’. Nevertheless, sometimes she takes a refugee in a skirt – uses feminine snares in dangerous situations. Ella as Max or Max as Ella is this eternal story of losing an identity about a person who is neither male nor female.
Drunk, confused and terrified, that is how Tricia Kelly presents Ella Gericke to the public. Her portrayal of a woman in Nazi Germany who is impersonating her husband is utterly believable and mostly heart-breaking. Tricia quickly switches the timber of her voice. As she narrates the play, with grace she goes through phases of being male or female, young or old. Her chameleon quality of an act is undeniably brilliant but so ever emotionally draining.
The surreal tale ‘Man to Man’ does not offer any hope, either to the public or to its disillusioned character. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no bright future for Ella; she is lost between two identities in an endless struggle for survival. With one male boot and one red heel Ella or Max Gericke stands on the chair and manifests ‘The war is over now.’
‘Man to Man’ is on till the 30th of November, for more information visit Park Theatre’s website.
Photo credits: Mike Kwasniak