Review: Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 21 – May 26, 2018
Playwright: Priscilla Jackman
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Nicholas Brown, Andrew Guy, Chantelle Jamieson, Ashley Lyons, Heather Mitchell, Georgina Symes
Images by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
For those of us who are transgender, the experience of life is always a little bit extraordinary. Radically othered, by virtue of the fiercely homogenising quality of gender, there is a part of us that cannot help but perceive things from the periphery, whether we feel ourselves to be accepted or marginalised. Catherine McGregor is a media star, in many ways Australia’s answer to Caitlyn Jenner, both sixty-something, both extremely privileged and established in their professional fields, and both coming out as trans in spectacular fashion in the 2010s. They are not trailblazers by any means, for we have existed since the dawn of humankind (assuming gender had existed from the very beginning), but their stories coincide with a particular time in Western history, when being trans is suddenly a thing to celebrate.

This new interest in our identities contains unquestionably, a hint of the freak show; we often find ourselves a curiosity that everybody else feels as though they finally have license to poke and prod at. It can be argued however, that we are the ones who have demanded attention be paid to our difference, in this, for many, lifelong battle for approval and recognition. In Priscilla Jackman’s Still Point Turning, a delicious balance is struck, in which the object of our gaze is simultaneously accommodating and commanding. The audience is intrusive, but at the protagonist’s insistence. She proclaims to not want the responsibilities of being a poster-girl for the movement, but presents herself with blunt candidness and a fearless embrace of the prying spotlight. The work is “based on interviews with Catherine McGregor”, and she is very forthright with her disclosures.

It is a political and benevolent act, but also narcissistic (as she admits), and that seemingly dissonant combination provides a potent vitality for playwright and director Jackman, whose creation here proves to be a remarkably rich piece of theatre. The show satisfies our need for the sordid and gossipy, allowing us into the profoundly personal struggles of a public figure, whilst offering some of the most informative and thought-provoking content of any biographical account. For a play about a personality whose interests are in sport and the military, Still Point Turning is perhaps surprisingly entertaining, relentlessly so, but its true value is in its frank and unembellished, and thus rare, depiction of a transgender experience.

We may not have arrived at a point where a story of this nature does not bear the burden of having to make that desperate plea for understanding, and we find McGregor’s suffering often occupying front and centre of the stage (alongside her charming sense of humour) but it is noteworthy that the show does go quite a distance beyond an exploitative depiction of trans tragedy. Societal progress can be observed in its ability to discuss its issues inquisitively and genuinely, offering perspectives that are less emotional and more sincerely exploratory. For audiences of all persuasions, the play’s statements and contemplations about how each of us negotiates gender (and other identity markers or constraints) is a rewarding opportunity for deep reflections about our places in social life; who we think we are, how we wish to be perceived, and the things we do to create a persona that each can be personally content with.

The production is passionate and polished, with clever lighting by Nick Schlieper creating comfortable shifts between time and space, whilst helping contain an unnecessarily large performance area. Music and sound by Steve Francis are conventional but highly effective in their calibrations of atmosphere. Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell’s costumes are simple but very smart, with the lead’s pristine white Carla Zampatti suit a breathtaking, memorable design feature.

Actor Heather Mitchell delivers a brilliant performance in the starring role; intelligent and insightful with her dramaturgy, impressively precise, bold in presence, and gloriously funny. Eminently convincing and disarmingly charismatic, we cannot take our eyes off of her. Her Catherine is fascinating and delightful, and we almost wish for the show not to end, if only to retain her company. A supporting ensemble of five effervescent players add to the fun, each one independently compelling and endearing, but wonderfully cohesive as a team, thick as thieves and marvellously engaging.

Even though Catherine McGregor has accomplished a great deal in her illustrious life as journalist, cricket commentator and military officer, the woman presented in these 100 minutes of Still Point Turning is defined principally by her transness. Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of McGregor’s own truth, it is an intriguing proposition that one’s fundamental sense of identity can be so firmly attached to ideas of gender. It is perhaps a consequence of unyielding persecution, of oppression and cruel humiliation, that what should only be an incidental element of a person’s being, is turned into a subsuming component.

McGregor puts blame on no one, talking only about transphobia as a personal demon, but the undeniable truth remains, that when we harm ourselves, it is always a result of conditioning by the outside. It is easy to think of McGregor as a person who has it all, and as such, we require that she expresses only humility and gratitude. However, the prejudice that all trans people continue to be subject to, range from insidious to barbaric. It is pervasive, even in progressive regions, and there is no doubt that we must always take the opportunity, to step up to defend the rights of our transfolk. To be visibly trans is crucial to our progress, and Cate’s indomitable capacity for attention, is to be admired and more importantly, emulated.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au