The extraordinary story of an 18th-century woman charged with sodomy
In 1717, Anastasius Linck, who had been born female but had lived her adult life as a male (some of it as an officer in the Prussian army) married Catharina Mulhahn in Halberstadt. Four years later, following the suspicions of Catharina's mother, she was exposed as a woman and executed for sodomy later that year. Little is known of her life except a single court record which includes a description of a stuffed leather strap-on penis she apparently favoured; it's not clear the extent to which her wife was aware of the deception.
These meagre but glinting spokes form the basis of Ruby Thomas's freewheeling reconstruction, which casts Anastasius not as a lesbian but as neither woman nor man, and her wife, about whom even less is known, as a free spirited feminist and pamphleteer who before marriage liked to shock her widowed mother by threatening to defecate on the dining room hearth. The basic facts of their story remain intact, but the lens is very much a 21st century one, which stretches to the ahistorical way they think and talk about themselves. “We have always existed,” says Linck. “We will always exist.”
All well and good, but I wish Thomas and her director Owen Horsley had dug more deeper and faithfully into the story's period setting, and allowed us to care about both characters as messy, complicated products of their specific moment rather than as emblematic figures co-opted by history, even if the words non binary and trans are conspicuously not used. Instead, Horsley's production has a self-consciously ersatz feel, the stage dominated by an unlovely cheap-looking white panelled wall, the background strains of harpsichord occasionally interrupted by bursts of glam rock. The default tone is spirited, bawdy and jaunty – enjoyable enough, but what poignant moments there are feel declamatory rather than properly moving. And while Thomas has great fun with the trial, casting the judge and jury as an old boys network of drunks and buffoons, the cartoon villainry feels symptomatic of the play's broad brush stroke characterisation.
Helena Wilson brings a streak of reckless danger to Catharina (although it remains coyly unclear what sort of sex the pair enjoyed). Maggie Bain evokes something of Anastasius's core, possibly irredeemable loneliness but their performance needs a bit more oomph. Thomas has done a valuable thing in bringing this terribly sad story into the light, but her play tells us less about who these two extraordinary people were and how they lived, and more about how we choose to think of gender in the present day.
Until Mar 4. Tickets: 020 7722 9301; hampsteadtheatre.com