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BWW Review: THE MUTANT MAN, The Space Arts Centre


In the morning, I heard a radio discussion about the NHS prioritising cancer treatment and scaling back other "elective" procedures in order to stay within budgets. The presenter asked about "... surgery that some people might claim is more related to lifestyle choices..." Gender reassignment procedures were not referred to explicitly, but the right wing press, which sets the agenda for so much that is discussed in the UK's public domain, is likely to get round to it fairly soon. A few hours later, I was thinking again about gender, minds and bodies.

The alignment of a person's physical appearance and gender with their socially identified gender, has been contested ground for millennia. (I am no expert in this field, so my terminology may not be precise - and I am very much aware that language matters greatly here). Australian, Christopher Bryant, goes back one hundred years or so to dramatise the story of Harry Crawford (born Eugenia Fallleni), whose trial and subsequent conviction for murder, continues to act as a catalyst to explore transgender issues today.

Told in flashback by two actors, who move in and out of the role of Harry, each dressed in similar clothing but one clearly identified as male, the other female, we learn of Falleni's decision to live as a man - not least for the financial advantages it afforded. Soon she is hiding (and later abhorring) the breasts, blood and body of her female physicality, but living a lie drains the soul. A slip of the tongue in the gendered language of Italian gives away her secret to her ship's captain who subsequently rapes her, the product of which is a despised daughter. Later, Eugenia Falleni takes the name Harry Crawford, marries widow Anne Birkett and, through prosthetics, succeeds in hiding his female body for years. But Birkett eventually does find out, dies in unexplained circumstances and Crawford is tried for murder and convicted - provoking widespread scandal throughout Australia.

Heather Fairbairn's production uses video and props to unravel the tale slowly (despite the fact that there was a similar case in the UK recently, it can be hard to follow, so a little Wikipediaing is useful before seeing the show). Matthew Collins and Clementine Mills play all the parts with intensity and precision, circling each other, connected, yet disconnected, one personality, yet two people, Transgender politics is explored as much by their negotiation of space, the putting on and taking off of clothing and the frightened looks into a mirror, as much as through the tragic story of a woman / man compelled to lie all day every day in order to live as she / he must.

This is issues based theatre and if the drama is more worthy than entertaining - I spotted one or two moments of darkest comedy, but laughing seemed disrespectful - the subject is a hot button topic on both sides of the Atlantic right now. The play is an important addition to a debate that can often generate as much heat as light, but one in which the stakes are very high indeed for those directly involved. Speak to a trans-person for five minutes and you'll learn how much you take for granted as someone with a settled gender and how viciously cruel language, procedures and, yes, bathroom notices, can be. This play underlines the common humanity that binds us more closely than our genders.

The Mutant Man is at The Space Arts Centre until 8 April.

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From This Author Gary Naylor