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New Australian Plays: The Trouble With Harry

Sydney playwright Lachlan Philpott reclaims a slice of local history from 'tabloid scandal' in his 2014 play, premiering in Sydney this month for Mardi Gras

Photograph: NSW Police Forensic Photography Archive
Eugenia Falleni, aka Harry Crawford

Lachlan Philpott had already decided to write about Eugenia Falleni – aka Harry Crawford – when barrister Mark Tedeschi published his popular book about her in 2012. Falleni’s story is embodied in Sydney history as one of the great tabloid-fuelled scandals of the 20th century – nicknamed by the media at the time as the ‘man woman case’.

Falleni was infamous not so much because she was accused of murder, but because up until her arrest she had lived as a man – and the woman she allegedly killed was her wife. It was an early case of the public and media grappling with trans identity – before it even had a name – in public.

It’s entirely appropriate therefore that Philpott's play about Falleni, The Trouble With Harry, finally gets a Sydney premiere (having had its world premiere in Belfast in 2013 and its Australian premiere in Melbourne in 2014) as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival.

Far from being a fan of Tedeschi’s book, Philpott felt he had to write a response to it – as a queer man. “I didn’t feel comfortable with some of the assumptions he made about Harry and Annie’s relationship, and the assumptions he made about what the truth of the case was – based on court records.”

Philpott’s play deliberately exploits the fact that we can’t know what actually went on between Crawford/Falleni and his wife Annie Burkitt. “I wanted to disrupt the normal ‘narrative’ of the story, and dispel any idea that we know the truth.”

“We can’t assert as fact, as Tedeschi did, that Annie never knew the biological gender of Falleni/Crawford. To me it seemed dubious that a couple could live together for almost 5 years and not know each other’s biological gender – especially given the close quarters they lived in. It’s a heteronormative assumption. I wanted to explore the possibility that Annie knew, and that these two women were in love.” 

Philpott also wanted to push back against what he saw as an aura of “titillation” that surrounded Falleni and Burkitt’s story when it was presented as part of the 2013 exhibition City of Shadows, at Sydney’s Justice and Police Museum.

“There was this sense of people being fascinated by what they did in the bedroom, and all these conversations about ‘the article’ – the handmade dildo that was found [in their house] and then presented as evidence in court. It was as if it was accepted that a woman could pretend to be a man and go off and be a drover, or fight in the war – but if she had a sexual relationship with another woman? Well that’s like this massive transgression.”

Philpott inserted a two-person ‘chorus’ into his play, who function much the same as the (albeit larger) chorus in Ancient Greek theatre: running commentary on the scene, and acting as emissaries between the play and the audience. In The Trouble With Harry, these two characters role-play various neighbours as they snoop and pass judgment on Crawford, Burkitt and their family.

“I’m really trying to explore in the play, particularly with the use of the chorus, [this sense of judgment] – which is still really relevant today. For so long in this country we’ve had conversations about same sex couples and whether they’re appropriate parents; they’re held under scrutiny – which is exactly what we’re seeing in this play. They’re being scrutinised and talked about as if they’re some sort of ‘freaks of nature’, because they don’t fit into the heteronormative paradigm.”

See what else is happening as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.

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