Interview: Heather Fairbairn, The Mutant Man

How much have we really progressed over the last century in our understanding and treatment of gender? This is the question posed by Christopher Bryant’s The Mutant Man, which has its world premiere at The Space on 28th March.

The Mutant Man is about challenging the stereotypes of gender,” says director Heather Fairbairn. “The play follows the true story of Harry Crawford, who lived in the early 20th century. In this psychological thriller, Harry grapples with his gender identity, faces an arranged marriage, attempts to disappear at sea, and, when charged with the alleged murder of his wife, is subjected to an unfair trial focussed more on questions of gender than on guilt or innocence.

“That said, the play is not naturalistic, let alone linear. If you could imagine the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse adapting Netflix’s Making a Murderer for stage, you would be well on the way to forming a picture of The Mutant Man.”

Heather was drawn to the play, first and foremost, by the quality of the writing. “Christopher Bryant’s multi-award-nominated script is a testament to excellence in new playwriting. I was already a fan of Bryant’s work, and when he sent The Mutant Man to me, I could see it would be an excellent foundation to build a production from. When the writing is this good, one can take more risks with the staging.

The Mutant Man was written around four years ago and has received numerous semi-staged readings since. We recently presented an excerpt at Theatre N16’s HerStory: Feminist Theatre Festival, and further afield in Melbourne, where Bryant is based, an excerpt of the play was included in Gasworks Arts Park’s Midsumma Festival as part of their ‘Playtime Staged Readings’ of new queer theatre. Even so, our production is the world premiere of the full work. To find such a strong, politically relevant, new play, that hasn’t been staged yet, is a rare and exciting treat for a director.”

Though the events described take place in the early 20th century, the story has just as much to say 100 years later. “Given the current political climate, arguably any story that aims to smash a societal framework of prejudice is an important one to hear,” says Heather. “The Mutant Man in particular exposes historical and continuing injustices facing members of the LGBTQIA community, yet ends with hope for the future.

“It explores the beginnings of Western society’s understanding of gender diversity; suggesting that, though the events in the play took place about a hundred years ago, our comprehension hasn’t grown much in the intervening years. Through the portrayal of historical events, the play highlights some unfortunate but necessary parallels between the intolerance of the early 1900s and the intolerance we’re consistently seeing now towards anyone, regardless of gender, who does not fit accepted stereotypes. The play is almost Brechtian in that regard: using a setting of another time and place to afford the audience with objectivity about what is happening here and now.

“I hope The Mutant Man contributes to the larger current discourse about the non-binary nature of gender and encourages audiences to disregard archaic gender stereotypes. At its heart, this inherently feminist play promotes the positive values of compassion, acceptance, and equality.”

The production is supported by the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, who champion LGBT positive arts projects inspired by history. “Their support has been invaluable to the development of The Mutant Man,” says Heather. “In 2015, Christopher Bryant was the first Australian to be shortlisted for the AABB Foundation’s playwriting award when The Mutant Man won an Honourable Mention in the competition. For the upcoming premiere season, I’m collaborating with a great team, including designer Charlotte Henery and lighting designer Sean Gleason. We’ve been fortunate to receive continued support from the Foundation in the form of a production grant, which will enable us to realise the design elements of the production.”

As a theatre and opera director, Heather’s worked all over the world, in a career that’s already full of highlights. “The one that jumped straight to mind was working as Assistant Director to Katie Mitchell on Ophelias Zimmer. I had worked with Katie Mitchell previously, but to do so at the Schaubühne – an institution I have long admired, with Simon McBurney creating Beware of Pity in the neighboring studio, and productions directed by Ostermeier and Castellucci showing at night, it was an exhilarating experience for me as an early career director.

“Another highlight has been collaborating with composer Ana Seara and librettist Sophie van der Stegen. We met in Munich last year whilst participating in a workshop about new music theatre for young audiences. During that weeklong workshop, we created a short opera, and we haven’t stopped creating work together since. We currently have an immersive adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in repertory at the Music Chapel in Belgium, and three other projects at various stages of development.”

The Mutant Man is Heather’s UK directorial debut: “So, this project marks a homecoming of sorts for me. I grew up in Nottinghamshire before moving to London by myself when I was 17 to attend The BRIT School. After The BRIT School, I continued my studies in Australia, but since graduating from NIDA in Sydney, most of my practice has been Europe-based. The Mutant Man, a project I am so passionate about, felt like the right work to return home with.”

The Mutant Man is at The Space from 28th March-8th April.

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