First published in The Times, Friday August 14 2015
In an Edinburgh awash with solo theatre shows you need something extra special to stand out from the crowd. Manfred Karge’s monologue is already blessed with an impressive pedigree. First performed in the playwright’s native Germany more than 30 years ago, it received its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 1987 with a young Tilda Swinton in the lead.
While that first English-language production is still fondly remembered, this stunning revival by the Wales Millennium Centre, based on a new adaptation by Alexandra Wood, is destined for classic status. Margaret Ann Bain is mesmerising as Ella Gericke, a woman in 1930s Germany who cuts her hair, dons a suit and assumes her dead husband’s identity in order to take over his factory job and avoid penury. Like that other great literary shape-shifter, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Max/Ella comes to witness at first-hand the major historical events of the 20th century, from the rise of the Nazis to the partitioning of Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Pic: Polly Thomas
Bain switches effortlessly between the conflicting male and female aspects of her character’s psyche and a host of supporting roles, including Max’s wartime sweetheart, a libidinous farmer and fellow workers and soldiers. Devoid of a passport and trapped in his new identity, Max wanders Melmoth-like, haunted by the threat of discovery.
Bain is the only performer on stage for 75 minutes, but the other star of Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham’s production is Richard Kent’s extraordinary expressionist set design. The weird-angled room with its sloping roof interacts seamlessly with Bain’s highly physical performance, becoming a canvas for stark, precision lighting by Rick Fisher and the gorgeous video creations of Andrzej Goulding, which include ice crystals forming in a window and the birth of Ella’s phantom baby, who grows like a tree up the wall.
The show is shot-through with such visual flourishes, including a sequence in which Bain appears to levitate and another in which she disappears into a suitcase. One of the most exhilarating aspects is the way the aesthetic tracks the play’s emotional ups and downs – when the character is at his/her lowest ebb the light is used to literally pin her into a corner. Yet nothing detracts from the strength of her performance or the sheer captivating power of the storytelling.