The Trouble with Harry

TheatreofplucK tell the story of Eugenia Falleni, an Australian transgender man convicted of murder

It was a scandal that had been long forgotten, until the publication in 1988 of Eugenia, A Man, a detailed biography by Suzanne Falkiner. Then the floodgates opened and the harrowing but intriguing story of Eugenia Falleni fell under the gaze of a succession of artists, writers, film makers, curators and academics in Australia, the country in which she spent much of her troubled life.

The latest incarnation is The Trouble with Harry, a new play by Sydney-based playwright Lachlan Philpott, premiered during this year's Outburst Queer Arts Festival by TheatreofplucK.

The oldest of 22 children, Falleni was born in Livorno, Italy in 1875 and migrated to New Zealand with her family when she was two-years-old. She was a wild, restless child who frequently ran away from home and, as a teenager, dressed in male clothing in her search for casual labouring work. She never learned to read or write and was dismissed in her early years as eccentric and odd.

But worse was to come. Falleni was doomed to grow up a tormented soul, trapped in the wrong body, scuttling around beneath the radar of respectable society at a time when transgender and sexual practices were far from acceptable subjects for polite conversation.

Disguised as a boy, she ran away to sea only to have her secret discovered in the most humiliating way imaginable, at the violent hands of the ship's captain. Pregnant and penniless, she was dumped ashore in the New South Wales port of Newcastle, where, under a variety of names, she attempted to build the first of what would be many new lives.

Philpott does not attempt a dramatic exploration of the inner workings of Falleni's psyche and sexuality. He does not try to uncover the motivation and personal conflict behind an existence so terribly fraught with difficulties and trauma. Instead, he turns his focus outward, onto the world and the times into which she was born, exposing the social mores that moulded and haunted her every waking moment.

It is not difficult to share his fascination with the photograph of a handsome man in a well-cut, three-piece suit, which inspired the play and is reproduced on the programme cover.

 

The image is of Falleni presenting herself as Harry Crawford and was featured in an exhibition entitled City of Shadows: Sydney Police Photographs 1912 – 1948. It is a telling pose, the tense posture, wary facial expression and frightened eyes betraying a female-to-male transgender human being and convicted murderer.

Alyson Campbell's bewitching production is all about shifting perspectives and ever-changing environments. This is not the first time she has collaborated with designer Niall Rea, the founder and driving force behind TheatreofplucK, which he set up in 1998 and, ten years later, became Northern Ireland's first publicly funded gay theatre company.

Campbell is also one half of a writing partnership in Melbourne with Philpott and, over the years, the two have developed an impressive slate of edgy, throught-provoking new work. Significantly, this production not only renews the partnership between the Belfast company and the Australian company wreckedAllproductions, but also establishes a new performance research link between Queen's University's drama studies department and its counterpart at the University of Melbourne.

That sense of shared instinctive understanding is much in evidence in the cohesive nature of the piece, in which text, story, visuals and sound (by Brazilian composers/performers Felipe Hickmann and Eduardo Patricio) blend beautifully together.

A series of free-standing, mobile metal frames form and reform to create the flimsy walls, back yards, rooms, corridors and narrow, claustrophobic streets that define the geography of the peripatetic lives of Harry Crawford, his wife Annie Birkett and her son Harry. Ever the outsiders, the reasons for the family constantly moving from place to place are gradually revealed through a subtle drip feed of information.

The piece begins on a dark note, with an unsettlingly lyrical description of the discovery of a charred body in a local beauty spot. The identity of the body, the circumstances of death, the confused events leading up to it will slowly emerge over the course of the next absorbing 90 minutes. An unerring sense of narrative, coupled with Philpott's searingly poetic style, provide the two unnamed narrators, Woman and Man, with a number of satisfying segments.

Stephanie Weyman and Gordon Mahn make a fine job of these Everyman roles, crafting a knowing, sometimes flirtatious, partnership, whose crisply articulated words and body language convey all that needs to be known about public attitudes towards the strange domestic set-up inside the shabby Cathedral Street house.

In this close-knit, poverty-stricken community, everyone knows everyone else's business and it is clearly a source of unassuaged curiosity and conjecture that the relationship between Harry and Annie remains hidden behind closed doors and drawn shades.

Less convincing, in casting terms, is the credibility of the pivotal three-sided relationship. In spite of faltering over the occasional line, Louise Mathews registers as a comforting, maternal, middle-aged figure, fussing over her son Harry – played by Matthew Mitchell as an indeterminate mixture of innocent child and simple-minded adolescent – while sharing some queasily intimate moments with her younger husband.

In the central role of Harry, Michelle Wiggins's swaggering, uber-macho demeanour so evidently underlines the androgyny of Eugenia/Harry that one one can too well imagine its impact on the outside world, where he/she is gossiped about as 'that thing walking about the street'. Wiggins is a versatile performer, but even when she drops the tenor of her voice and thrusts her hands into her trouser pockets, she looks and sounds rather too young, fresh-faced and feminine.

The sparky spirit of the story is supplied by Roisin Gallagher as Josephine, Eugenia/Harry's unwanted daughter, brought up by an elderly woman who has just died. Her unexpected arrival into the family home signals the opening of the whole sorry can of worms.

Young Harry has already begun to sense that all is not well in the household, a situation wittily reinforced by his inability to determine whether his pet chicken is a hen or a rooster. He and Josephine relate warmly to each other like brother and sister and have, in the past, shared a number of upsetting discoveries involving their mismatched parents. Lest one was in any doubt, Josephine's firm assertion that her father is actually her mother sets the narrative on a downward trajectory, fated to end in tragedy.

This thoughtful, bittersweet play is a welcome addition to the canon of new writing currently emerging here. It is Phlipott's second outing with TheatreofplucK, which successfully revived his play Bison at the 2009 Outburst Festival and took it on a sell-out run to the Oval House Theatre in London. On the basis of this insightful creative collaboration, one can only hope that more of the same is in the offing.

The Trouble with Harry plays at the Newry Arts Centre at 8pm on November 26.