In our relatively enlightened times, conversations – if not acceptance – about gender identity and the right of the individual to choose their sex do take place. Historically, women have at times dressed as men to protect them from sexual advances or to enjoy the ‘privilege’ of being a male, at a time when women had no rights whatsoever. If women had no official rights back then, non-cisgender individuals were certainly treated as pariahs. However there is a difference between a woman who has identified herself as a ‘man’ and just being attracted to other women. A century agom such distinctions weren’t debated at all, but they are very relevant in the case of ‘Harry Crawford’, the lead character in Christopher Bryant’s The Mutant Man. Arrested in Australia for the murder of his wife Annie in 1917, Crawford’s birth gender is revealed to the police, which does nothing for ‘his/her’ anonymity.
Directed by Heather Fairbairn, The Mutant Man takes this true account and constructs it in the form of a detective story. Asides from following ‘Harry Crawford’ in ‘the present’, the play jumps back to ‘his’ youth as Eugenia Falleni – a young woman of Italian descent who has been passing herself off as a man while working at sea. Playing Crawford and Annie plus other supplementary characters, Clementine Mills and Matthew Coulton effortlessly blur the lines between the genders. In this respect it reminded me of the play Travesty where a male and female actor swap gender roles, bringing into focus the similarites and differences in behaviour between the sexes.
A marriage based in deception is always a precarious project, but Alice’s and Harry’s relationship is as happy as can be, given the circumstances. However, even the patient Annie longs to see her husband ‘in all his glory’ and experience the sort of ‘full-on’ climax that her knowledgeable sister has told her about. The play is very candid in terms of ‘the mechanics’ of their lovemaking, with Harry resigned to deriving pleasure from giving Annie pleasure with his prosthetic phallus. If only ‘he’ could let her touch the ‘real him’…
Of course ‘Harry’s’ idyllic existence couldn’t last forever. Someone from his former life – his daughter – tracks him down, which leads to all sorts of questions…
Projections play a big part in the visual vocabulary of the show, whether it is the semi-abstract/semi-figurative visuals at the back or the magnification of items on a desk. Each give non-verbal clues to ‘Harry’s’ state of mind.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that social mores have judged women ‘behaving as men’ as a transgression of the greatest magnitude, a fear of the disruption of the natural order of things. The legend of Pope Joan attests this. If a woman can perform any role as well as a man, what happens to the the distinctions between men and women – or indeed male privilege? The Mutant Man taps into these arguments and so much more.
© Michael Davis 2017
The Mutant Man runs at the Space Arts Centre until 8th April 2017.