Writer: Manfred Karge
Translator: Anthony Vivis
Director: Tilly Branson
Reviewer: Michael Gray
This exceptional one-woman piece, by the East German playwright Manfred Karge, was inspired by the same true story that prompted Brecht to write The Good Person of Sechuan.
Originally titled Jacke wie Hose (jacket or trousers – roughly, “same difference”) it was brought to the UK in the 80s, and is now given a rare, revised revival at the Mercury as a studio companion piece to the Brecht in the main house.
We see a woman live through the harrowing years of German history in the guise of Max Gericke, her late husband. It’s a persona she assumes, in desperation and fear of poverty. He was, she becomes, a crane operator in Weimar Germany. Shabby clothes, a gruff voice and a carefully placed rabbit’s foot give her an entrée into a macho world of ‘beer and schnapps and bugger all else’. And then she is trapped in a gender identity, her husband buried in a grave bearing her name.
Technically it is a tour de force. The narrative is enhanced by a nightmare soundscape (John Chambers) and atmospheric lighting (Sarah McColgan). Industrial girders in the roofspace of the studio cast ominous shadows, then descend to form a cage around the isolated chair in the squalid flat – “empty bottles give the game away” – where we began the journey.
It is a tour de force for the actor too. Tricia Kelly gives a superbly sustained performance, visceral but disciplined. Much of this richly textured adaptation is in verse. There are precise cues for the sound and light. We see Ella age from Snow White to drunken recluse; other characters – the best-dressed man, Puppchen from the canteen – drift across our consciousness.
Scenes both realistic and surreal are strongly drawn – the drinking hall, the cabaret, the dream of motherhood, the prison cell, God the creator, the plastic punnets. Childhood memories creep in, too; there’s a big Grimm story book among the dirty plates on the carpet.
There are moments of wry humour. Egon the rabbit, shot against the wall of his hutch for drumming out Beethoven’s Victory V. The myopic boss given a taste of paradise (with salmon and sekt on the side).
But the powerful ending is unrelentingly dark – incoherent shouting, a percussive dance of death with one red shoe and one crane operator’s boot.
Runs until October 19