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Saturday 23rd
posted by Morning Star in Arts

Man to Man

National Theatre, London SE1


“TO DEVELOP in greater spiritual freedom, a people must break their bondage to their bodily needs,” the Hessian radical Wilhelm Schulz argued. “They must cease to be the slaves of the body.”

In Manfred Karge’s Man to Man, we see in gut-wrenching intensity just what this entails.

This premise of this compelling but flawed one-woman show is simple enough. After her husband dies of cancer, Ella Gericke assumes his identity to carry on his job as a crane operator. She is motivated by a combination of grief — rooted clearly in the structural basis of their relationship — and economic necessity.

Yet the 75 minutes drawn out of this, set against the backdrop of the rise of nazism and the division of Germany, is anything but straightforward.

As Ella writhes on Richard Kent’s uncomfortably-sloped set, swigging beer and undergoing a rapid induction into the manly world of poker, we see there is far more at stake than just personal identity. In a materialist society, this Brechtian monologue tells us, we are enslaved to a body far greater than the skin and bones of the individual.

There is a hard rawness to Maggie Bain’s performance. Ella’s experience is one of both human suffering and total alienation from humanity. She is an anti-hero in the vein of Mother Courage: keeping her head down, joining the SA to avoid the complications of military medical inspections.

In Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham’s production, they seem to throw the personal out of the context of the political. In a latterly-added scene exploring the fall of the Berlin Wall, this pace is rather disrupted with an admittedly strong and nuanced political addendum. It offers confusion instead of Brechtian discomfort.

The focus on the individual in plays with the backdrop of Man to Man will always be uncomfortable. But perhaps there is no better way to demonstrate the conditioning that enables evil and suffering.

Ends September 23 2017. Box office: (020) 7452-3000