Space Arts Centre, London – until 8 April 2017
“I saw the face of a man, or a women as it were.”
I do admire a play – and a production – that isn’t afraid to make its audience work. Christopher Bryant’s The Mutant Man relays the true story of Harry Crawford, a man accused of murder, a woman who was born Eugenia Falleni, a transgender man living at the turn of the last century. And Heather Fairbairn‘s production takes these questions of gender fluidity and runs full pelt into her box of tricks, emerging with a densely constructed and thought-provoking sense of theatricality.
Using the murder trial as a focal point gives us as much purpose as we’re able to easily discern, the non-linear narrative allows fractured biography to seep through for though Clementine Mills is credited with playing Harry and Matthew Coulton Eugenia, each also takes on several other roles as well as exploring all the complexities of the protagonist. And what complexities they are as the notion of gender as a construct slams up hard time and again against a resolutely intolerant society – plus ça change…
Influences from contemporary theatre companies such as Complicite and Forced Entertainment loom large but Fairbairn’s magpie instinct fashions its own queer beauty here. Live and recorded video (Sapphire Goss) interplay beautifully, perspective is toyed with most effectively (the bloody hands – yeesh!), Sean Gleason’s inventive take on the lighting pays extraordinary dividends especially when it plays with shadow, and Sebastian Afterbury’s soundscape keeps us marvellously off-kilter.
And in the midst of it all, fragments of the tale are presented to us, like a jigsaw it is impossible to complete. A love story for the ages but based on a lifelong-held secret (Harry’s wife Annie was allegedly blissfully unaware of her partner’s status), brutal rape ending in pregnancy and everything that suggests for the parent/child dynamic, the weight of societal prejudice forcing through terrible decisions. At just 70 minutes, there’s just not enough time to unpick the many layers we’re presented with here in Mills and Coulton’s superbly nuanced performances and there’s a slight sense that The Mutant Man ends just as it is hitting its stride. That said, questions around gender identity are some of the most difficult that a person can face individually and that society as a whole ignores at its peril and so it’s hard not to feel that this production has the right to be just as challenging.