Monday 13 February 2023

Theatre review: Linck & Mülhahn

Not that there seem to be a lot of great times for the trans and non-binary community lately, but we're in the middle of some particularly bad days at the moment, so it's fitting timing for a historical drama about a pioneering gender-bending couple. Linck & Mülhahn may be a tragicomedy that delivers on the tragic side as much at the comic, but it's also undeniably triumphant, celebratory, and optimistic that, while not enough has changed between 1721 and 2023, the day is coming. It's inspired by real people and events, but Ruby Thomas' play does add its own caveats about what exactly constitutes a true story - is it the story as interpreted by the laws and mores of the time, or the truth as felt and experienced by the people at the heart of it? In 18th century Prussia, Anastasius Linck (Maggie Bain) is a well-liked soldier in his regiment and as much known for his debauchery and female conquests as any of them.

But when fears of the pox mean compulsory full-body medical examinations, Linck would rather desert his post and risk execution than have his secret exposed.

Meanwhile Catharina Mülhahn (Helena Wilson) is frustrated by her mother's (Lucy Black) attempts to marry her off to dull young men with large farms like Daniel Abbott's Johan; when Anastasius arrives in town posing as a fabric merchant, she feels a spark that's been missing with her previous suitors. It's Catharina who proposes they get married, despite or because of knowing Linck's secret: He was born female, has been living as a man most of his life, and privately identifies as neither quite man or woman. The two spend some months happy together until Catharina's mother starts digging into her son-in-law's past.

Owen Horsley directs a raucous production - despite being introduced by an older version of Catharina known as The Spinster (Marty Cruickshank) who lets us know from the start there isn't going to be a happy ending, the focus is on the couple as happy and triumphant. The general tone is funny, anarchic and sexy, with the period costumes and rotating white paper walls of Simon Wells' design contrasting with the bursts of 1970s and '80s rock and pop that abruptly break into the action whenever Linck & Mülhahn tear through 1720s Prussian society - quite literally dancing to their own tune.

Bain and Wilson make for a hugely appealing central couple but there's strong support from the ensemble, with Black giving some nuance to the mother who thinks she's trying to protect her daughter but could end up condemning her. There's fun turns from Leigh Quinn as both a bolshy prostitute and a maidservant who's not quite as meek as she seems, Kammy Darweish as a self-important judge and Timothy Speyer as a sleepy juryman, so even as the second act takes us into the darker territory of a trial that could see the couple executed, the play refuses to be cowed any more than they were.

Here we see Linck's old army buddy (Qasim Mahmood) continue using his preferred He/Him pronouns when testifying despite the court's objections, and even the doctor (David Carr) Anastasius attacked refusing to outright condemn him. It all reinforces Thomas' theme that refuses to accept the story as a tragedy regardless of how it panned out. Current events may add a darker tone as they remind us the story is all too topical, but Linck & Mülhahn comes out on top as a celebration of the fact that gender identities have never conformed to whatever the expectations of the day were, and aren't going to start now.

Linck & Mülhahn by Ruby Thomas is booking until the 4th of March at Hampstead Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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