Life & Culture

Linck & Mülhahn Theatre review: Two women in love? Or something more trendy?

Historical play about a married couple in 18th-century Prussia who were tried when it was discovered that the husband was born a woman is dulled by its messaging


Linck & Mulhahn by Ruby Thomas ; Production ; Cast: Maggie Bain, Helena Wilson, Lucy Black, Daniel Abbott, David Carr, Marty Cruikshank, Kammy Darweish, Qasim Mahmood, Leigh Quinn and Timothy Speyer ; Directed by Owen Horsley ; Set Design by Simon Wells ; Lighting Design by Matt Daw ; Sound Design and composition by Max Pappenheim ; Movement by Natasha Harrison ; Flight and intimacy co-ordinator: Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper Brown of RC ANNIE LTD ; Casting by Helena Palmer CDG ; Assistant Director: Dewi Johnson ; Hampstead Theatre ; London, UK ; 28th January 2023 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray

Linck & Mülhahn
Hampstead Theatre | ★★★✩✩

Ruby Thomas’s sparky historical play is dulled by its messaging. The subject is a married couple who lived in 18th-century Prussia but who were tried when it was discovered that the husband was born a woman and was then executed for sodomy (I know).

Not much is known about Anastasius Linck (Maggie Bain) and Catharina Mülhahn (Helena Wilson) beyond transcripts of the trial, which Thomas discovered in the British Library. But the version of events depicted depicts Anastasia as a dashing soldier in the Prussian army whom Catharina first sets eyes on when the soldier is passing her home resplendent in his uniform.

Swerving the suitor set up by her mother, Catharina seeks out Anastasius, who by now has deserted the army and is avoiding a compulsory medical examination to check for plague symptoms.

The two fall for each other, marry and slowly Anastasius lets down the guard that allowed her to live life as a man — that is until her mother-in-law (an excellent Lucy Black) ruins it all be exposing her daughter’s husband as a fake man.

All this is conveyed in Owen Horsley’s lively production with wit and irreverence for the societal norms outside which Catharina and Anastasius lived.

Theatrical conventions are also subverted, though in ways that are now rather conventional. Juxtaposing 18th or 19th-century stories against 20th- century rock and pop has been a cheeky device since the musical Hamilton and before that Spring Awakening.

This show replaces the harpsichord with blasts of punk to convey its rebellious heart.

Yet the evening marches in lockstep with another orthodoxy — that of gender activism. Thomas has conscripted Anastasius’s life into that good cause by denying her real life character the possibility that she was a woman who sought freedom from patriarchal oppression by pretending to be a man. “I am not a man,” she explains. “Nor a woman. I am something else. Something more.”

If the real Anastasius thought of herself as a gay woman who refused to be defined by man- made laws then that possibility has been denied her here. It is not the first time historical figures about whom little is known have been resurrected by a playwright only to be frog-marched into conforming to his, her or their politics.

The popular Shakespeare Globe show Emilia depicted the real life Emilia Bassano, who was very possibly the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and is also thought to have been Jewish, as being a black British woman. Like later generations of black British women her talent is stifled and she suffers great injustice because of her race and the fact she is a woman.

Redacting Emilia’s much more likely Jewish identity was no problem for the creators of Emilia, and making Anastasius non-binary instead of a woman is a decision made just as breezily here.

Poetic licence is given by Catharina’s final grandstanding speech to the audience in which she asks “What is the good of speaking the truth if one cannot change it?”
“Beware the person who tells you, ‘This is a true story,’” she adds.

“The truth is not an object to be found,” she continues, it can be “unravelled” and a “new truth can be made” instead.

She says this presumably to argue that old narratives must be challenged so that hitherto silenced voices can be heard, though without worrying if this version of Anastasius might be silencing the real one all over again.

Nor has she paused to ponder if remaking past truths is the fuel that drives Holocaust denial and Stop the Steal “new truths”. It is a shame because other than the dead weight of this on-the-nose messaging Thomas writes with a light touch and shows a talent for comedy too.

Sure, beware the person who tells you “this is a true story”,but writers should beware of promoting causes, rather than questioning them. The result is always patronising and preachy..

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