Review: The Trouble With Harry (Siren Theatre Co)

sirentheatrecoVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 3, 2017
Playwright: Lachlan Philpott
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Thomas Campbell, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Jodie Le Vesconte, Niki Owen, Jane Phegan, Jonas Thomson
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In there somewhere, is a true story. Harry Crawford was a transgender man who lived in Sydney a century ago, and when he fell foul of the law, was forced to present as female in public. Stories of the oppressed are systematically sublimated by dominant forces that demand not just acquiescence in behaviour, but also censorship of histories. Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble With Harry goes in search of a fascinating figure from our cultural past, to create a new collective memory that is as significant to our lives today as it should have been yesterday.

It is a modern piece of writing on the subject. We are still focused on the persisting struggles of trans people, but Philpott does not put us through the exasperating process of “understanding why”. The trans person is not required to defend his position, or explain his existence, and this is radical. We only see the persecution and injustices that befall Harry, and that is more than enough for our protagonist to connect with his audience’s humanity.

The sophistication of the script is reflected in the production’s look and sound, with an exceedingly elegant team of designers bringing to the space, a serene beauty that evokes an appropriate grandness of emotion and meaning, so as to correspond to Harry’s extraordinary experiences. Matt Cox’s work on lights is particularly laudable, for an unmistakable quality of transcendence that permeates the show.

The same sophistication is missing however, in the casting of a female actor as the leading man. One could easily imagine Harry turning in his grave at the very idea. The play’s structure too is damaged by the cat being let out of the bag, far too early in the plot. We need to see what Harry’s neighbours see, in order that the cruelty and absurdity of his troubles can be revealed with greater poignancy, and accuracy. (More on this “theatrical misgendering” of trans characters in my piece last year on Belvoir’s Back At The Dojo.)

Nonetheless, performances are uniformly accomplished in The Trouble With Harry. Jodie Le Vesconte is a soulful Harry, convincingly strong and silent, with an impressive sense of depth to his inarticulate suffering. A mesmerising couple, with Jane Phegan as his Annie, their mutual affection feels completely genuine, and a crucial point of success for the production. Director Kate Gaul’s confident, understated approach gives us a very smart show, with a lot of integrity injected into her depiction of one of society’s most misunderstood. There is a real beauty in Gaul’s theatricality, but dramatic tension for the piece is inconsistent and occasionally underwhelming. We want the tragedy to play out in a more predictable way, but the staging resists that convention and its associated clichés.

There is a delicate balance in our society that involves the constant negotiation between cohesion and individuality. We want to feel safe in our communities, so we are compelled to make endless assumptions about our neighbours, and how much they are just like us. We want other people to conform, because if we are to follow the rules unquestionably, we will ensure that others must do the same. Gender, it can be argued, is nothing but a long list of requirements made of us that contain virtually no inherent logic. Harry was a man with a quirk, and a man with no quirks, is no human at all.