‘Linck and Mülhahn’ review – Bold historic tale of gender expression lacks the essence it celebrates


If you missed I, Joan at the Globe last year, then Hampstead Theatre’s Linck and Mülhahn tries to emulate its daring and ambitious nature, but only somewhat successfully. Swapping a non-binary Joan of Arc for a Prussian male-presenting musketeer entering a relationship with a woman, the tale about the “gender pioneering couple” Anastasius Linck (Maggie Bain) and Catharina Mülhahn (Helena Wilson) is bold and clever, but only on the surface.

Some may well consider it harsh that I’ve made such a comparison, rather than consider its full originality, but there are many striking parallels: the riotous music underpinning the entire story; the absurd rigidity of a traditionalist court; and even the flat out refusal at the very end to conclude with trans trauma and suffering, replacing it with an alternative, joyful ending. It is as much a compliment (in terms of it being like Charlie Josephine’s phenomenal production) as it is a criticism (regarding its lacking uniqueness). I am, nevertheless, inclined to support the similarities, for it speaks to one of the play’s final lines that trans and non-binary individuals – or even those who have experimented with gender in some way, shape or form – have always existed. This is just another example.

It’s a play, however, which has attracted some controversy in the weeks building up to its press night, specifically over the level of involvement of trans creatives in the production and it being written by Ruby Thomas, who herself is not transgender. Bain, who is non-binary, released a video statement on Instagram addressing some of these concerns, and Hampstead offered free preview tickets to trans and queer individuals who wanted to see the show but couldn’t afford a ticket.

There’s only so much one can speak to this issue as a cisgender critic, but there’s certainly some elements to the writing which don’t quite land as comfortably as they should, feeling clunky or otherwise out-of-place. A handful of similes – such as one comparison to bubbles, of all things – don’t come across as lyrical as Thomas might have intended, but more awkward and incongruous. There are certain language choices – for example, a 22-year-old saying ‘fart’ – designed to bring a more modern slant to the 18th century story, but unlike flatulence, it feels forced. The same goes for the punk music, which comes across as a loud, on-the-nose reminder that the content of the play is supposed to be rebellious, subversive and provocative, when in reality, strong performances from the cast alone are enough to detail the breadth of feeling on the issue of gender at the time, and the bravely defiant acts of some in an otherwise restrictive society.

Take, for instance, Lucy Black’s permanently aghast Mother, who is brilliantly funny in her fragility and her shock at even the slightest deviation from the norm. For all the talk in the play about seeing beyond what is on the surface, Bain is exceptional in expressing the gravitas, weight and emotion of Thomas’ dialogue, evidently connecting with Linck’s testimony. Even in moments of silence in the courtroom scenes, a single stare from them at whoever is in the dock conveys so much, and it’s absolutely fascinating to witness. Wilson’s sparky, self-deprecating Mülhahn completes the two-hander, whose enthusiastic embrace of the philosophies of love is endearing, and echoed with tragic reflection from Mülhahn’s older self (Marty Cruikshank).

Though such ideas which appear compelling to Mülhahn feel light and unexplored as an audience member, even with all its impressive motifs. Touch is often mentioned, from the touché of swordsmanship to the idea of touch going beyond what the eyes can see, to get closer to the “true essence” of an individual. Clothes, of course, are one way in which a person can mould or conceal their real self, and for cloth maker Linck (who appropriates the name Rosenstengel from a fellow soldier in order to take on the job after deserting the musketeers), it is a form of protection.

Disappointingly, though, these metaphors and symbolisms are left for the audience to entertain, rather than being investigated or explained in detail by Linck. Many of us, one would like to think, should be familiar with the concept of gender presentation, but there is little offered here beyond reinforcing the idea of being true to oneself – though perhaps that bears repeating in this day and age. Again, I’m reminded of Thomas being the writer of the play, and left of the opinion that a trans writer may have been better placed to elaborate on this, as opposed to a cis playwright over-reliant on simile and metaphor.

For all the talk about respecting one’s “true essence”, it’s pretty noticeable that Thomas isn’t writing from her own experience here, and thus isn’t able to fully engage with the nuance involved.

The most frustrating example of this is in its conclusion, where an intriguing commentary on truth is presented by the older Mülhahn, about something being made being “un-made”, and how the concept of truth has become subjective, ready to be reinterpreted by individuals as they see fit. It’s appropriate for our current post-truth era, and the idea of retrospectively applying a new truth or interpretation to stories of gender from history is incredibly timely and novel, but to leave it as a footnote rather than an idea explored from the start – especially when the play opens and closes with an older Mülhahn as our narrator – is underwhelming and disappointing.

It could have started from the outset explaining that this is the truth she is forced to tell, and how she wishes to present a different one some day, but like many other ideas in Linck and Mülhahn, the full scope of the concept isn’t explored enough. Thomas’ play tries to encourage us to go beyond initial impressions to appreciate one’s fine, inner being, but I am only left enjoying this production in a wider, general sense, with the deeper ideas not quite shining through.

Linck and Mülhahn is now playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 4 March. An audio described performance will take place on 25 February, with a captioned showing on 28 February.

Production Images: Helen Murray.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Linck and Mülhahn’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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