MAN TO MAN
The Studio, Birmingham REP, Wednesday 27th September, 2017
This production from the Wales Millennium Centre is a new translation of Manfred Karge’s 1982 piece – although it could have been written much earlier in the last century. There are dark shades of Kafka here in the dehumanisation of man in the service of industrialisation, echoes of Brecht and especially Beckett in the execution. I am also reminded of Berkoff’s reworking of Metamorphosis, when our protagonist literally goes up the wall…
At the root of the fractured narrative is the story of a widow who adopts her dead husband’s identity so she can take over his job as a crane driver. This means she has to change her behaviour to fit in and become part of the blokey circle of his workmates. Because a woman shouldn’t be doing man’s work, of course. I’d like to think the world – especially the world of work has moved on a little since 1982. But cross-dressing is a classic trope in drama and always has been, giving rise to all sorts of complications and talking points. Here, it’s Nazi Germany where many had to pretend to be other than they were in order to survive. The stakes are high for our lady in trousers.
Maggie Bain is the sole performer, taking us through a blend of story, anecdote and memory, playing all the parts in a highly physicalised manner. She is a compelling presence and is supported by some excellent tech work: projections illustrate the fantasy moments; atmospheric lighting slashes across the scene through wooden slats; distortions and echoes in the sound augment the mood; and above all, in my view, the original music by Matthew Scott adds a nursery rhyme/creepy feel to proceedings.
Directors Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham pull out all the stops to bring life and colour to the grey, monochromatic world. Surreal surprises abound: for example, Bain climbs into a suitcase and then comes in through the door. Richard Kent’s sharply angled, expressionistic set complements the early 20th century vibe. Dark circles ring Bain’s eyes, like a Buster Keaton figure or, given the expressionistic flavour, Claude Rains.
On the whole, I have to say I enjoyed the form of this piece rather than the content, due in no small part to Maggie Bain’s magnetic and skilful performance, using her voice and body to such a plastic extent, you expect the other characters to join her on stage at any given moment. In the end, it’s a play of moments rather than moment. It’s dark stuff: David Lynch meets Samuel Beckett. Spellbinding rather than enlightening, it works on the imagination rather than the intellect.