Theatre Review: I Am My Own Wife

I Am My Own Wife at the MAC is ‘unassailable. A tour de force’ says John Higgins.

Reviewed by John Higgins

I Am My Own Wife is a story about collections. The first time we meet our heroine, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, she brings out an Edison standard phonograph and talks with a collector’s zeal about its sapphire stylus, its twin, gender-specific horns; wooden for a woman, metallic for a man. There is music there but it is music as information, collated on wax cylinder. The scrapings of dead musicians held forever like insects in amber.

The next character we meet, the playwright Doug Wright, is also a collector. However, he is interested in Charlotte’s stories, thinking, quite correctly, that they would make an extraordinary play.

That these two unique, rounded and beautifully measured characters are portrayed by the same actor, John Cronin, (described, bafflingly, as ‘lead actor’ on the MAC’s website) is remarkable in itself. That he goes on to portray a further thirty four characters, each given colour, weight and distinction despite the fact some of them have less than a minute of stage time, is nothing less than extraordinary.

I’m embarrassed to bandy around stale theatrical clichés like ‘tour de force’ but I throw up my hands in the face of this unassailable performance. This was a tour de force! The technical prowess, the physical and mental stamina displayed by Cronin throughout the play, as he leaped sure-footedly from nationality to nationality and from age to age, was joyous.

I Am My Own Wife tells the story of von Mahldorf, founder and curator of the Grunderzeit museum. Born Lothar Berfelde to a Nazi, wife-beating father, whom she later, allegedly, beat to death with a rolling pin, von Mahldorf lived openly as a cross-dresser since her teens. A cross-dresser under two of the most conformist regimes of the twentieth century: Nazism and Communism. She escaped a firing squad and the bombing of the prison where she was being held and was the first transvestite to receive the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the only federal decoration in Germany.

This is meat and drink to Wright who imagines that he is onto a story of a triumph of the human spirit against oppression. His confidence is shattered by tabloid reports that von Mahldorf was an informant for the Stasi, the East German state security, and her intelligence led to the arrest of a close friend and collector, Alfred Kirchner.

Von Mahldorf claims that the arrest was Kirchner’s own idea, to protect her, but the story does not tally with the official reports. When Wright asks her of her collection ‘What do you do when a piece loses its lustre?’, it is clear that he is talking of his own carefully pieced together story, suddenly tarnished by the Stasi’s own records.

This is a magnificent play. The dialogue taut and fresh and beautifully weighted, fully deserving of its Pulitzer and Tony awards. Emma Jordan’s direction is faultless and the lighting and set design is beautiful, the final sequences actually breathtaking. But it’s Cronin’s stage and he earns every square inch of it. When, at the end of the play, the audience rises to a spontaneous round of applause, I’m with them for my first ever standing ovation. It’s the natural thing to do because it’s the only thing to do. Go and see this play.

I Am My Own Wife is at the MAC until October 6. Book tickets at the MAC website.