STC tells the story of an extraordinary Australian life, almost too big for the stage
Military big-shot. Political insider for Labour and the Libs. Alcoholic. Cricket commentator. Author. Australian of the Year finalist. Trans woman. Catherine McGregor is a uniquely Australian public figure – brash and funny and difficult and controversial and unforgettable.
In other words, she’s the perfect subject for a new Australian play. Still Point Turning, written and directed by Priscilla Jackman in her Sydney Theatre Company debut, is based on hours of interviews Jackman conducted with McGregor. The result is a candid look at an extraordinary life: from policy and cricket to parties with the drag and trans performers from Kings Cross’s legendary Les Girls revue, to devastating alcoholism and regrettable social media battles. Plus, there is the loving and losing parents, marrying and starting over, and over, and over. The learning and un-learning of internalised misogyny and transphobia, her experiences with gender dysphoria and suicidal ideation, and her journey towards coming out publicly as trans.
This is verbatim theatre — Catherine’s story told in her own words – but it also functions as a memory play. The older Catherine (Heather Mitchell, superb in the role she is playing with McGregor’s blessing) interprets her past memories and experiences as younger, pre-transition Catherines, played by Andrew Guy and Ashley Lyons, embody them.
The play’s title references TS Eliot’s series of poems the Four Quartets; in the first, ‘Burnt Norton’, he wrote that “at the still point of the turning world... neither flesh nor fleshless... where past and future are gathered... there the dance is.” And Mitchell, as Catherine – as Cate, McGregor’s “complete” self – is that still point, and her past and present come to life around her and through her. It’s the dance of a self coming to terms with itself.
Jackman’s script is supple and empathetic, eschewing a trans trauma porn narrative for candour and nuance instead. The focus is solely on McGregor, who is careful to name this experience as hers alone and not a universal narrative for all transgender people; she places some of her more controversial comments – about opposing the Safe Schools program, or attacking the choice of David Morrison for Australian of the Year – with frankness and a complexity that’s often missed in the contemporary, rapid-response media cycle.
There is a jewel of a moment in the latter half of the play, when Catherine meets, and is enchanted by, Indian cricketing great Rahul Dravid (Brown). He speaks and writes beautifully and he’s at the top of the game Catherine loves, but it’s more than that: he is utterly comfortable in his own skin. Catherine is profoundly moved by him – she has never been able to embrace herself quite so fully, but she’s realising that if she doesn’t, she won’t survive. It’s a moment of recognition, realisation, and deep emotion, and Jackman constructs the scene with sincere grace.
McGregor’s turning world is further shown to us by Michael Scott-Mitchell’s clean, direct set that functions as a sensitive canvas for dramatic poetry – LED lights tell us where and when we are, and translucent scrims are pulled back and forth on a circular track to delineate between the personal and public, the past and present. It’s simple but it works.
The cast is rounded out by Nicholas Brown, Chantelle Jamieson and Georgina Symes, all of whom, along with Guy and Lyons, play a variety of roles – from Carlotta to Tony Abbott and beyond. They are mutable and uniformed and sometimes their movement leans toward dance; they are Catherine’s ghosts.
This is an Australian story that is exactly where it belongs: in a season at the country’s premier theatre company. It’s a smart and generous production with trans talent both on and offstage, and it reaches out into the audience with both hands, inviting them in, all hearts exposed. Still Point Turning received a standing ovation on opening night; let’s hope that response lights a way forward for more trans stories, and trans artists, on our major stages.