Review by Harry Bower
The irresistibly charming 18th-century Prussian solider and French-stocking maker Anastasius Linck is anti-love. That is until they meet Catharina Mülhahn. Catharina, a moody, fed up, and frankly hilarious 22-year-old living at home with her single mother, meets Anastasius’ gaze. The rest is history: the pair marry and live together for four years. It all comes crashing down to earth when Anastasius’ truth is outed by their mother-in-law – the truth that they are neither a man nor woman. A court case ensues and without spoiling it for you, it doesn’t end very well.
One of the many amazing things about this story and the narrative weaved in Ruby Thomas’ new play is that it’s based on a true story. A story about a gender pioneer. A forgotten story about a person persecuted because of who they are. An epic love story worthy of a place in our history books, but with only court records as evidence of its existence. That is, until now.
When Thomas was browsing the British Library, they stumbled upon this tale in an article and commenced their research. The result is a beautiful and emotional piece of theatre produced with unexpectedly humorous writing, a great cast, and a sensitive approach to storytelling, delivering its own form of hopeful message.
Thanks to the rather sombre source material, a huge chunk of this play is created with significant creative license, and it is here in which its greatest strengths lie. For largely embellished back stories and invented scenes of intimacy both in terms of language and sexuality, the characters are remarkably well-rounded. Particular kudos must go to the title couple of Linck and Mülhahn, played by Maggie Bain and Helena Wilson respectively, who manage to reproduce a natural and organic chemistry in their relationship. The pair dance around the stage, sometimes literally, each with light of foot and a passion for the piece in their acting clear for all to see.
The same can be said of Marty Cruickshank here playing the Spinster, our narrator for the piece. Cruickshank opens and closes the show representing a future Mülhahn and therefore has the important responsibility of making the audience empathetic to the character’s decisions throughout the piece and providing a sense of perspective to the story which the audience can easily be wrapped up in.
It is Lucy Black, however, who steals the show as Mother. This is a performance from someone at the top of their game. Played as a sort of Sybil Fawlty from the 18th century, Mother is an overbearing prude of a woman who is overly protective of her daughter and too traditional for her own good. When played like Black does, you almost warm to her – despite her tendency to be villainous – she clearly has some of the funniest and sharpest dialogue in the piece. Her facial expressions and comic timing will be admired by audiences night after night.
The set design in this show is unique and effective, if a little repetitive. There are only so many times you can watch the same flats and stairs revolve on the turntable, though I was consistently impressed by the new ways in which the production uses it to create new and clearly identifiable spaces. This is aided hugely by a creative and generally slick lighting design by Matt Daw. On the flip side, I found the sound design a real juxtaposition, inconsistent in its relevance to what was happening on stage and often quite jarring thanks to the short bursts of rock music blasted out loudly at various times during the show.
As Ruby Thomas acknowledges herself, a lot of Linck & Mülhahn is imagined. The playwright needed to put words in the mouths of her characters, invent storylines, unpick complicated relationships and make clear the muddiest of water. Largely this is done to a high quality, and each scene is simultaneously well-paced and well-pitched, with smatterings of light relief adjacent to some pretty serious and harsh realities. Sometimes though, the mixture of modern and traditional language, cultural references and attitudes of the characters brings a slick scene juddering to a halt.
Act one is about telling the story of these lovers and demonstrating the complexity of their relationship. Act two is essentially a courtroom drama in which we barely hear from the title characters, instead listening to the accusations and testimony, which ultimately leads to Linck’s demise. It is this part of the show which is most wooden in its writing, acting and delivery but also the most factually accurate, a result of the actual court papers filed and translated years later.
As Linck & Mülhahn are enjoying their final interaction with each other, you can draw parallels with other classic love stories. Romeo and Juliet or Bonnie and Clyde. But it is in Linck’s last words that we are reminded; this is about as far from traditional as it gets.
This is not a boy-meets-girl story with a happy ending. It is a boundary-smashing non-conforming tale of a genuine queer pioneer reminding us all that these real-life stories are not new.
“Nothing is truer than happiness, and nothing is happier and sweeter than truth”, beams Catharina toward the end of the show. You would hope that somewhere, somehow, Anastasius Linck is smiling down on Hampstead Theatre, knowing their truth is finally being told.
Linck & Mülhahn plays at Hampstead Theatre until 04 March 2023. Tickets from https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2022/linck-and-mulhahn/
Photos by Helen Murray