Man to Man: Creating a new classic

(Left to right) From original German to the second English language version.

The creation of a new piece of theatre is a tricky process and there is no one way to do it. In my career so far, I have found that whatever works is the right way. Invariably there will be challenges and set backs along the way. When I encounter those, I tend to go looking for inspiration. That comes through the books you read, the people you surround yourself with, going to the theatre, cinema, museums and art galleries. But the most exciting projects have often come out of the unknown and a thirst to know it.

The idea to direct Man to Man came to me as so many great ideas do… in the bath! I was reading a book on directing by Stephen Unwin (former Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston) and he often mentioned an extraordinary one-woman show he had directed at the Traverse theatre starring Tilda Swinton and designed by Bunny Christie. Intrigued by this, I emailed the literary department at the National Theatre to find out if they had a copy. I had been looking for a project to do with my wife Maggie Bain, she is a huge Tilda Swinton fan and the themes Stephen described in his book sounded like something that would appeal to her.

The copy arrived from the NT and I promptly devoured it. The play is a collection of 26 scenes telling the story of Ella Gericke – a woman who assumes her husbands identity in order to keep his income and their apartment following his untimely death due to bone cancer. The piece flipped from poetry to prose and was unmistakably German in it’s bold, muscular and vivid storytelling, brilliantly captured in the translation by Anthony Vivis performed at the Traverse theatre and then the Royal Court. It would require an extraordinary performer to pull it off; luckily I had one of those sitting upstairs at the time. Once I finished reading it, I gave the script to Maggie and asked her for her thoughts, I told her nothing about my planning to cast her as Ella.

Tilda Swinton on the poster for the original English Language production.

She read it in one sitting. A fast read for her is a good sign! She talked about how much she loved the language and world of the play, how it was a unique perspective of a world we had seen depicted in a number of different ways but never like this. She then asked who I had in mind to do it. “You.” I said. That was five years ago.

I met with several producers and artistic directors pitching this obscure German play that had been such a sensation in the late 80’s and propelled one of our most celebrated, diverse and interesting actresses to stardom. “It’s too German.” “I don’t like the play.” “Who’s in it?” were just some of the responses I got.

This went on for more than a year, then an opportunity for one more pitch presented itself in a chance meeting with producer Fern George from Wales Millennium Centre. We had arranged to meet for a coffee to discuss the possibility of working together, WMC had just appointed Graeme Farrow as Artistic Director of the building and Fern was looking for people to collaborate with on new projects. I pitched Man to Man and it seemed to fit well with their programming for the Women Of The World Festival. As the pieces began falling onto place I began to feel we should have a new version, as fantastic as the original English version was, I thought it would be appropriate to get an up and coming female playwright to create a new version for WOW.

Fern and Graeme agreed.

Wales Millennium Centre

The next part of the plan was to secure the rights and approval for the new version, that required a trip to Berlin to meet with Manfred Karge at the Berliner Ensemble (the theatre company founded by Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel).

Manfred still works as a writer, director and actor in Berlin so Maggie and I flew out to meet with him without a meeting actually being secured. It was a punt but one I felt we had to take. It would also provide us with a valuable opportunity to soak up the history of that magnificent city. We spent every day in museums and galleries and every evening in the theatre. We walked everywhere, the streets are full of history, and every time we stopped to eat I checked my emails for a reply from Manfred.Manfred Karge in the cafe at the Berliner Ensemble

The world famous Berliner Ensemble founded by Bertolt Brecht.

Manfred’s version of Brecht’s unfinished play Downfall of the Egotist Johann FatzerAt the Berliner Ensemble was on our schedule and it was an incredible experience walking past the Pretzel sellers and into that theatre for the first time. Manfred gave a short speech before the play began, we don’t speak German so we had no idea what he said, but the audience laughed and he spoke with ease and charm. The lights went down and the play began There were no subtitles but the story was clear. The production had a profound effect on my vision of Man to Man, the acting was vivid and charismatic with the actors seeming to chew the language, the set was expressionistic and haunting - what looked like a cobbled floor which in closer inspection was a carpet of tightly packed skulls.The need to secure a meeting with Manfred increased further having seen his work. I continued to email, using Google translate to transcribe my requests into German. Eventually, he came back to us with an invitation to meet in the courtyard of the Berliner Ensemble for a cup of tea. As the relief of securing the meeting cleared a new challenge came into focus, how would he feel about a new version?

Armed with questions, we headed back to the Berliner Ensemble. It was a perfect Autumnal morning – clear blue sky, crisp air with a hint of chill that catches the back of the throat – the kind of day that clears the head and invigorates the senses.

Manfred is a big guy. He is what you would imagine a German director to look like; dressed in black, with a flat cap, scarf and small oval shaped glasses, smoking long thin cigars he produced from a tin case. With him was a young actor from the Ensemble who had been roped in as a translator for the day (the usual translator was off sick that day). Manfred was delighted to meet Maggie and pleased we had come to meet him in person. It was a challenge to communicate at first, we had to find a rhythm. Manfred speaks a little English but not much and our translator spoke well enough but we had to take it slow and break up our thoughts but once we got going it was incredibly useful.

Manfred Karge in the cafe of the Berliner Ensemble.

Manfred told us he had written the play for his wife (whom he had met at the Berliner Ensemble). I explained that I had chosen the play as a project I wanted to do with my wife, so there was an instant connection (Maggie and I had been married for about four months at the time). He produced two pocket sized German versions of the play from his jacket. One had photographs from several productions around the world and the other was just the text. He thumbed his way through them whenever we had a question for him and talked about Ella’s character and how the play was based on a true story. He described her as a working class hero, a survivor, who magpies quotes from great German literature but doesn’t necessarily understand them from an intellectual point of view. He told us about certain lines that had come from family members and phrases that were quintessentially German. He also revealed that he had written an additional scene for the play after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In this new scene he depicts the joy Berlin’s reunification juxtaposed against Germany the shock and loss Ella experiences upon finally returning to the grave she buried Max in many years before to find that it no longer exists.

I was strongly drawn to what I felt were the fairy tale aspects of the play, there are no stage directions so my imagination was allowed to run wild. I felt that the magic of memory was an important part of this piece, I also felt the piece needed to feel very German. It shouldn’t feel like this is happening in the UK, the language and the physicality of the piece needed to feel a little alien to the audience. Manfred was enthusiastic about my vision for his play and was soon on board with my plan for a new version.

Maggie Bain in Man to Man - Photo by Boris Mitkov.

The next move was to find a translator to create a literal translation of the play and a playwright to create a new version that would bring out all of my instincts in the text. I emailed Chris Campbell at the Royal Court who suggested I talk to Penny Black. Penny is one of the leading literal translators of German plays here in the UK, our turn around time was incredibly short but I managed to persuade Penny to take on the task. I was travelling back from a job I was doing in Cardiff just before Christmas and had two physical copies of Manfred’s original German script at home in London, Penny needed one of them. I raced in the door about 11pm and had to deliver the script across town that evening, luckily Penny only lives about a 25 minute walk away. Worn out after the journey and trying to get back swiftly to repack my case to travel again early the next morning, I posted the script in the wrong letterbox! I had to go back home to pick up the second copy of the script and deliver it again! I didn’t make the same mistake again and she got to work on the translation over Christmas and New Year.

With the translation in the works we now needed our female playwright. There are many reasons I wanted a female writer but the most deeply seeded one with my belief that only a woman could truly understand and imagine what it might mean to give up that identity. The character is not transsexual or transgender, she makes this decision for very practical reasons. Clare Slater (then at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill as executive director) is someone who’s taste and opinion I trust implicitly so I turned to her for recommendations. Sure enough, everyone she suggested proved to be an outstanding talent and could have done a brilliant version, however, Alexandra Wood struck me as meticulous, sensitive and forensic.

Alex and I had a connection and a rapport as soon as we met. The way she talked about the play with reverence and fascination convinced me she was the right person for the project. It was the right decision. She and Penny worked brilliantly excavating every word and quote in the play. I remember all of us meeting at the National Theatre over a coffee front of house in the temporary foyer of the Shed Theatre to discuss every detail about the script and Penny’s research into the etymology and anatomy of German colloquialisms and phrasing so as to strike the right sense and balance in this new version. As a director, it was fantastic to be a part of the process. I was able to listen in on their conversations and learn why certain combinations of words had been chosen and why phrases were specifically constructed the way they were.

The original script, to the literal translation, notated script and Alexandra's version.

Going in to the rehearsal process. I was as better informed than I had been with any other play. Alex was there for the first couple of days of rehearsal and left us to get on with it. She was always on the phone if we needed her but we rarely did. Her version is everything we had hoped for going into rehearsals. It had taken almost two years to get us to this point but Man to Man was now ready to be rehearsed.

Here is what Graeme Farrow – The artistic Director of Wales Millennium Centre -said in his initial press release:


Wales Millennium Centre is to present a new version of Man to Man in March 2015, the first full in-house production under the new artistic direction of Graeme Farrow.

Translated and adapted by Alexandra Wood from Manfred Karge’s masterpiece ‘Jacke wie Hose’, the production will reimagine the one-woman show as a visceral and virtuosic piece of physical theatre.

After her husband dies, Ella Gericke adopts his identity and continues working his job as a crane operator in order to survive in Nazi Germany. Compromising her own identity for survival, Ella is plunged into a new masculine world of beer, schnapps and poker; a claustrophobic existence dominated by the fear of discovery and the changing face of authority in a volatile twentieth century Germany.

Reworking the original German masterpiece into an intimate and all-consuming piece of physical theatre, Man to Man confronts the horrors of World War Two from a unique and deeply personal perspective.

Written by up and coming young playwright, Alexandra Wood, and starring Margaret Ann Bain as Ella, Man to Man is directed by Bruce Guthrie, (Associate Director for Sam Mendes on his world tour of Richard III, director of Twelfth Night and Othello, for the Singapore Repertory Theatre), alongside a stellar creative team including Scott Graham of leading physical theatre company Frantic Assembly.

Wales Millennium Centre’s Artistic Director, Graeme Farrow, commented: ‘'Manfred Karge's Man to Man offers a unique perspective on German history with a dazzling mixture of poetry, prose, realism and magic. It is being made with a superb artistic team including the hugely talented physical performer Margaret Ann Bain. We aim to produce bold and striking work like this in Wales and take it to the world. Man to Man is a good place to start.'

Speaking about the new adaptation, Director, Bruce Guthrie, said: ‘Man to Man, is very different to plays I’ve directed before. It’s very episodic - a series of memories that Ella is re-living, and I found it really compelling when I first read the original script. This adaptation will very much be about taking the audience on a sensory journey as opposed to a narrative one, and I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to evoke different reactions from the audience based on the series of memories that are explored.

‘It’s a fantastic play, and we’ll be trying various different techniques to establishing a language and relationship with the audience to take them on a journey with the character: projection, lighting, the way that we interact with the set, or with the audience, or the physicality of the piece. It’s all up for grabs because the text is so rich and the memories are so potent. It’s going to be very exciting.’

Manfred Karge’s original version of the play, Jacke wie Hose, was first staged at the Scgauspeilhaus Bocehum in 1982. It was first translated by Anthony Vivas and performed in the UK under the English title Man to Man, with Tilda Swinton playing the role of Ella Gericke.

Man to Man is part of WOW Caerdydd, a festival celebrating, provoking and expressing female achievements, struggles and future challenges taking place in March 2015.

Man to Man Trailer

And now rehearsals begin on the 21st of August and we are taking this remarkable play on a tour of the UK prior to playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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