Hampstead Theatre, London – until 4 March 2023
Here’s a love story, an idyll of 18c Prussia: Corporal Anastasius Linck, a Hanoverian musketeer in dashing white breeches and shiny buttons is espied from a window by the lovely, undowered but extremely bored and rebellious Catharina Mulhahn. Our hero is forced to desert the regiment and flee under the assumed name of Rosenstengel to work as a cloth-monger and dyer, since a medical examination for the clap would have revealed that he is born a woman. But love must have its way, and finds its idyll in a garret until an outraged mother of the bride and the clumping simplicities of a bygone penal code catch up with them, comically but lethally.
There is nothing new about people stepping outside the tiresome social conventions laid down for the body they were born with. Across cultures and down history there have been many characters forceful enough either to live as the opposite sex, or to declare themselves as the current line has it “nonbinary”: something beyond and different.
We hear much of the males, especially their persecution in cultures which lately included our own, but perhaps not enough of the women: amazons and military maids, girls who ran off to be pirates, sailors, soldiers. Some tales are of following a lover – like Sweet Polly Oliver or Leonora in Fidelio – some just wanted adventure and were – as many of us have been – resentful of female limitation.
Others were lesbian and fell in love with girls. Of those female lovers, some knew perfectly well what was going on below their dashing partners’ breeches, others seemingly not. And certainly stiffly conventional societies like 18c Prussia preferred to believe such wives were dupes. So this is the backbone of a fascinating story which inspires a playful tragicomedy from Ruby Thomas, who has already dazzled us twice downstairs in this theatre which discovers new writers and tends them well.
She found the story of Linck and Mulhahn in a 1722 account of the court case which condemned both – “him” to death, her to prison needlework and exile. With director Owen Horsley and some enlivening bursts of modern disco she goes at it playfully, in a clean stark abstract set which becomes barracks, bar, home, garret and finally courtroom. It is at times gloriously funny, often deeply touching in the portrait of their brief domestic fulfilment.
Maggie Bain is glorious, crop-haired and swashbucklingly boyish as a soldier, grave and troubled in moments of unease at the dangerous social unacceptability of their love. Helena Wilson as Catharina is a likeable hoyden, clashing with a fabulously drawn Lucy Black as her mother, a mistress of pass-ag petit-point who is eventually roused to terrified hysteria at the danger of the situation.
The long first act is a delight, sharp and credible and funny, with a bit too much young-intellectual chat about Locke and Liebnitz, but real heart. After the interval they are in court, and Thomas’ gift for uproarious comedy this time is lavished on Kammy Darweish’s bored old judge and the pious prosecutor and doddering defence. Mother’s panicked evidence is good, and the decent fellow-soldier Johann – who always knew, but respected a fellow-warrior female or not – adds to the sense of how absurd it was, and still is, for law to interfere in private love of any kind.
At which point I hoped that this sense of absurdity and celebration of diverse ways of being would lead our author on to some timeless, and still playful, ending. Alas, it was not to be: it goes literal ,and heavyset preachy. A touching but overdone last prison parting is followed by a scaffold speech too far, and the hammering of a message that “even if I am done away with , those like me will remain” . Then a modern couple in dungarees and t shirt meet in a theatre now to “weave their own story” of passion and suffering. Until those last ten minutes I was cheering. It faded a bit, killed a mouse below, but Ruby Thomas is absolutely one to watch , its a good evening, and I will follow every play in her future.
My only quibble is the hard insistence in the playscript that Linck must never be played by a “cis heterosexual male or female”. If another playwright ruled to exclude gay actors, imagine the row. If individual privacy in sexual love is sacred, let it remain so.
box office hampsteadtheatre.com to 4 march
Linck & Mülhahn has been kindly supported by the Godwin family.
The T.S. Eliot Foundation commissioned Linck & Mülhahn.