Tabloid fodder gets transformed into Greek tragedy in this new Australian play by Lachlan Philpott
In October 1920, Harry Crawford was found guilty for the murder of his wife, Annie Birkett, in Sydney. The verdict was later appealed and Crawford was released, but it wasn’t the rocky road to justice that caught the attention of the nation: it was the fact that Crawford was a transgender man (though his life pre-dated the term by some decades). The press nicknamed his trial the ‘Man-Woman Case’.
In The Trouble With Harry, playwright Lachlan Philpott reclaims this ‘tabloid fodder’ and spins from it an Australian Gothic that sits within within a tradition of epic tragedy that spans from the Greeks through to Shakespeare.
Harry (Jodie Le Visconte) and Annie (Jane Phegan) have a secretive, fraught, but undeniably electric marriage. They have moved into a new home on Cathedral Street with Annie’s son – also named Harry (Jonas Thomson) – and although it’s not the nicest neighbourhood, Annie is determined to keep decent and ensure her family flies under the radar. They have moved a lot, and it seems – for a moment – as though their life will now have some peace.
But then Josephine (Bobbie-Jean Henning) lands on the Crawfords’ doorstep needing a place to stay. She is connected to Harry somehow, and it’s that connection and her disruptive arrival that sets in motion a chain of events that will force deeply-held secrets into the open and lead to death and destruction.
Self-assured but acutely aware of the vagaries of ‘historical narratives’, this is a play that’s uncomfortable with assuming complete authority over its subject; Philpott uses that discomfort as a narrative quirk that drives the story forward. He has created a chorus of two nosy neighbours (Niki Owen and Thomas Campbell) who pause and rewind the family’s action as they gossip, considering different options and outcomes for Annie and Harry. How much do the husband and wife know of each other? What does Annie know of Harry’s secrets? No one can say for sure, and so Philpott doesn’t deal in absolutes, instead churning out the discomfiting, compelling choral call of a rumour mill.
Kate Gaul directs with both compassion and ruthlessness – concepts that are usually at odds with each other, but interplay so well here. She stages the chorus like a two-person interrogation; they don’t let a single movement on stage pass without comment or speculation. But it’s the compassion and respect that Gaul cultivates for the Crawford-Birkett family that ensures the play is truly stronger than its performance of a long-ago scandal.
Gaul is protective of Harry and Annie and their complex emotional makeup, casting them as something removed from the mythology that is quickly being created, discarded and rewritten around them (and which would be re-written long after their deaths); the couple remain on or directly in front of the sturdy decking that forms the main stage while the chorus and the rumours spend most of their time below or around it, in the audience or peeking around curtains. The couple are safely ensconced within the fourth wall; the chorus breaks it.
On Alice Morgan’s pleasingly rustic set of sturdy, unsentimental decking and wooden boxes, Matt Cox’s lights and Nate Edmondson’s sound summon a sense of foreboding that grows – and occasionally ebbs away for moments of relief – throughout the taut 85-minute running time.
Phegan and Le Visconte lead a strong cast with their a prickly, thrilling chemistry – you can almost see the sparks when they kiss. Phegan’s Annie might smile a dreamy smile and sing while she’s setting the table but she has her own flinty side, and she is never a helpless victim (thankfully!) to the ‘dangerous’ queer person on stage; the door is left open to the possibility that she may also have identified as queer.
Best practice in theatre at this moment suggests that trans actors should be cast in trans roles – which is not the case in this production. Perhaps the play and this production wants Harry’s trans identity up for debate – though that would seem to be reductive: any ambiguity on the intricacies of Harry’s gender identity would not be necessarily cancelled out by a trans performer. But the presentation of of butch or masculine women is also under-represented on Sydney stages and Le Visconte’s Harry is unapologetic and fully realised; there may be no easy label for him but Le Visconte plays him with utmost respect and remarkable magnetism, determination, and conflict; it’s a tremendous performance.
It’s not often that trans stories or stories about queer women make Sydney stages, let alone stories about our own queer history. Gaul’s production and Philpott’s script offer an eloquent argument for examining our history and releasing genuine human struggle from the badge of scandal; it gives dignity back to those who had it ripped from them.
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