The Mutant Man is a play that has taken playwright Christopher Bryant years of research to write, and a crowdfunding project to make it to the stage. The Space Arts Centre, housed in a converted church in the Isle of Dogs, has made a bold choice to present it. It tells the true story of a female-to-male transgender man (before the term transgender existed) in Australia who was convicted of the murder of his wife. This is not what makes it bold, but rather the fact that one man and one woman play her/him at different points in her/his story, as well as other characters; also the timeline skips back into flashback mode.
The story itself is fascinating, that is for sure, but due to the way it is presented, and the difficulty of the props and the methods, it was not clear to me what was happening and who was who. I have had to read up about the actual story since I came away. The actors are talented, that is not the problem, but with a story that is not naturally clear, and which is trying to make interesting points about gender identification and dysphoria, taking off a jacket did not mean I understood who the next character was. This might mean that I am not very gifted at following a plot, but it is also unlikely to mean that I would be the only one in this position.
The presentation is attractive and interesting to watch in the former church. The two actors stand before us and at times mirror each other, delivering some rather poetic lines; at other times we see video projections on the large back wall, or magnified film of something happening live on the desks before them. However the actors, Clementine Mills and Matthew Coulton, seem uncomfortable at times with the angles of their microphones, and having to keep moving and positioning standard lamps and cameras themselves.
In actuality, Eugene Falleni (born Eugenia and also known as Harry Crawford) married a woman named Annie Birkett, who did not realise that her husband was not cisgender male until close to her death. When she was told the truth by a neighbour, it seemed that she intended to end the marriage, but during the argument with Falleni about it, she slipped and hit her head on a rock. This is the murder trial which is at the centre of the play and which shoots Falleni into the public spotlight which he is not prepared for.
The play is not afraid to be candid about the issue that the couple made love without one of them realising the true gender of the other. There is obviously a prosthetic phallus involved, as well as frustration on Falleni’s part that his wife could not feel ‘the real me’.
The Mutant Man is described as LGBT theatre and, although the phrase does not ring quite true as the era pre-dates the term (Falleni was born in 1875 and died in 1938), it definitely belongs to the movement of genderqueer, non-binary theatre which has recently gained momentum. In this respect it is important that it should be seen and performed, and to present it in such a challenging way is a brave move. However the complexity of the subject maybe requires a less abstract re-enactment, otherwise the likes of me just can’t keep up.
By Hatty Uwanogho