The critically acclaimed play ‘I Am My Own Wife’ will receive its Northern Irish premiere this month at Belfast’s MAC – a one woman show, performed by a man, based on the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Ahead of its opening, we caught up with its Director, Prime Cut’s Emma Jordan, and Director of programmes at The MAC, Gillian Mitchell, to discuss rehearsals, the centre’s Autumn programme, and the life of the truly remarkable figure on which the play is based.
Questions by Tara McEvoy
How does the play fit into The MAC’s wider Autumn programme?
GM: As The MAC is still a new venue, we’re trying to programme as many big events, as many special events as we can for the Autumn season. Obviously this is a play which has never been put on here in Northern Ireland before. But the main thing for me is the opportunity to showcase the work of Prime Cut, which is one of Northern Ireland’s finest theatre companies. So all these factors are behind, what is on the surface, simply a Northern Irish premiere. It’s about celebrating the quality, and the tradition that we have in theatre-making here.
EJ: It’s very important that the independent sector has a venue that audiences know, that they come to see work that might be a little more about risk taking, might be a bit more contemporary, might be a bit edgier in a way. If there’s a home for independent theatre, The MAC is the home for it. Before, we couldn’t do large scale work as we didn’t have the right facilities – in a way, The MAC has now become the focus for all the companies in Northern Ireland to be able to show their work in one venue, that the audience know, when they come to the theatre – whether it’s Tinderbox, or it’s Echo Echo, whoever it is – that that’s the home for their work. That’s very important for the sector as a whole in Northern Ireland; that the audience knows that that’s what they get whenever they go to that venue.
How have rehearsals been going so far?
EJ: Rehearsals have been going great – I’m cautious saying that!
GM: It’s very rarely you hear a director saying that!
EJ: (Laughs) I don’t even like to admit that to myself! But John Cronin is a fantastic actor, he’s really, really talented. And we have a brilliant creative team, so in that kind of way it’s been quite calm. We’re about to go into the theatre, so that’s very exciting. It’s the kind of play that needs an audience to live and breathe, so in a way it’s quite false rehearsing it, because the missing element is the audience – the interaction between the audience and the play. The audience, in a way, become a character in the play, in the way they follow the story and make judgement calls. It’s a quite morally ambiguous play. So it’s exciting that, we’re at the stage where we’re about to get to the most important element, really.
To what extent have you looked to past productions of the play when rehearsing this version?
EJ: I would never look to past productions to inform any work that we do – really, that just becomes kind of an albatross, the weight of that. And there’s enough weight whenever you’re given people’s work, work that’s won so many awards, that comes with that pedigree – you know that if you mess it up, it’s all your own fault! But certainly, we would never be influenced by other productions. It’s important that artists make their own decisions – and their own mistakes! But the play is so well written, it’s beautifully constructed. The characters are really engaging, really vibrant – we’ve got a rich script to refer to. So that’s really what we look at.
How has John Cronin been coping with the challenge of performing a one man play?
EJ: John is a very hard working actor. Learning a one man play is a challenge – before you even begin to identify thirty six different characters!
GM: It’s a lot of responsibility – with a one man show, you’re very exposed!
EJ: You are very exposed, but I think it’s important that everybody is there to facilitate him. Technically, vocally, he finds different voices, posturally he examines physicality. All that helps to establish separate roles.
And has it provided you with challenges as a director?
EJ: It’s very intense – rehearsals always are, but it has been very intense to work on a one-to-one basis, with one person. Thankfully John is a very even tempered individual! It’s definitely been easier than I imagined.
What drew you to the script initially?
EJ: Because it’s a really fantastic story that is very engaging for an audience – you fall in love with the character of Charlotte. The period of history is fascinating, her story is incredible. You can’t believe that one person went through such a journey.
GM: It’s as if she lived six people’s lives, and packed it into one.
EJ: It’s really very gripping – there’s no moment in the play that you’ll ever be bored
GM: I think it’s also a very humorous play. I think the audience will respond to that. Although she lived an incredible life – and had to make the choices and compromises that most of us only ever have to deal with in a smaller way. I think there’s a great connection between the audience and her character, and of course the other characters.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the play?
EJ: A really brilliant night at the theatre!