This Wales Millennium Centre production of Manfred Karge’s Man to Man, which first turned heads in Edinburgh in 2015, is stunning. Every moment of the production stands alone like a photograph from a coffee table compendium of bad-ass scenographic moments. The bisection of the space by Rick Fisher’s lighting, the lines, the palette, the sheer possibilities of Richard Kent’s secret climbing frame of a set! It’s all utterly delicious. I want to cover it in chutney and make it into an orgasmic sandwich.
Then throw in Maggie Bain’s solo performance as Ella Gericke, widowed as the Nazis (the originals, not the ones we’re currently battling) are creeping into power. She assumes her dead husband’s identity, burying her own name in a false grave and proceeds to do what she needs to do for survival. Under risk of discovery, her life is one lived in constant pursuit.
I wish I could have Bain in my classroom for my next ‘Introduction to Judith Butler’ seminar; here is an actor who truly gets what it is to perform gender. It’s a layered and accomplished work, and the fluidity she manages to convey while also undertaking movement that verges on the acrobatic is astonishing. It is such an intelligent performance. Bain is an expert at seasoning, she knows exactly how much to add and when.
I am by my very nature a maximalist – more is more and bigger is better – but Man to Man tests my commitment to excess. Bruce Guthrie and Scott Graham’s direction avails itself of every possible horizontal and vertical onstage; there is no playing space that is left empty of Bain’s contortions. Why have one accent, one elegant magic-trick of projection when you can have three, four? It’s relentless. The production is so over-loaded that there is nowhere to go for Bain, her performance so consistently needing to match the loud pitch of what we’re seeing.
The overabundance of gorgeous imagery actually ends up stifling the equally intense visuals conjured by Karge’s metaphors. Seeing the weighty symbols of the hammer and sickle, and the swastika that Gericke witnesses’ children ‘pissing in the snow’ being projected behind her doesn’t add anything to their power. In fact, it stops us watching Bain’s mesmerising expressions.
I am the first to defend scenography’s narrative power, and there are moments here that show its potential perfectly. Bain dropping from a chair affixed to the set wall, a drop that looks impossible to make without breaking many Equity safety standards, underscores the devastating moment it accompanies, for example.
This is the second Karge play I’ve seen this year at the Everyman. The first, the resident company’s Conquest of the South Pole, was presented with high production values but managed to avoid overwhelming the human connections between the performers. The same cannot be said of Man to Man, despite its breath-taking beauty.
There is no such thing as bare stage: scenography and its visual metaphors can be understood simply as a chair from the prop cupboard performing as a chair within the world of a particular production, or as a pathway of light leading us to somewhere we dream of as better and more enlightened. In the case of Man to Man, these lights are blinding us from something that is so, so close to spectacular.
Man to Man is at the Everyman, Liverpool, until October 28th. For more details, click here.