On the surface, Christopher’s Bryant’s The Mutant Man is a crime drama; we open in a courtroom, as two identically dressed actors – one male, one female – unpack an assortment of items in evidence bags. But it doesn’t take long to understand there’s a lot more going on here than a straightforward murder trial. The defendant, Harry Leo Crawford, was born Eugenia Falleni and has been living as a man for years, and when his gender identity is made public, it becomes the key piece of evidence leading to his conviction.
The timeline of the play jumps back and forward in time, sometimes quite rapidly, piecing together Harry’s life story as he struggles to live in a body that doesn’t represent who he really is. Bryant’s language is often poetic, but holds nothing back – we get a detailed description of how Harry was able to convince not one but two wives of his anatomical masculinity, and there’s a brutally explicit account of his rape and subsequent pregnancy by a sea captain who discovered his secret. Simultaneously the court case unfolds, with characters from Harry’s past reappearing to speak against him, and both gripping stories build to a climax as we learn what really happened to Annie, and the inevitable conclusion of the trial.
The central character is played beautifully by two actors – Clementine Mills as Harry and Matthew Coulton as Eugenia – a simple yet highly effective way of separating the two personas. Eugenia is submissive, anxious and seems constantly uncomfortable in her own skin, while Harry, though played by an actor who’s physically shorter, seems far larger in stature and confidence. At one point they deliver overlapping monologues that sum up the distinction: “I’m terribly afraid,” says Eugenia, while Harry states defiantly, “I’m not afraid.” The one phrase they have in common: “I did not kill this woman.”
The two actors also play all the other characters, and herein lies one of my few gripes about the production: though some attempt is made to physically differentiate, with the actors adopting different postures and ways of speaking, it’s not always easy to tell who we’re looking at – often we’re halfway through a character’s testimony in court before we realise who they are and what relevance they have to the case.
Though the set appears simple, the production is actually incredibly complex and rich in detail. Director Heather Fairbairn equips her actors with a range of props, which gradually emerge from those evidence bags we saw earlier and show how every detail of Harry’s past has come to be used against him. In addition, the production makes highly effective use of lamps, microphones and cameras, often projecting close-ups of evidence on to the large video screen at the back of the stage, and culminating in a powerful image that represents Harry’s confusion and disdain for his own body. There are occasional sound issues; the actors have so much to do with props to unpack and countless small costume changes as they slip from one character to the next, that at times the acoustics work against them and their words are lost – but the most important moments are delivered direct to the audience with clarity and passion.
The play doesn’t try to tell us everything, but instead gives us just enough to send us away disturbed and sufficiently intrigued to read up on Harry’s story for ourselves. Though we may comfort ourselves with the knowledge that such a travesty of justice couldn’t happen today, The Mutant Man does force us to confront the question of how gender diversity is still viewed and (mis)understood a century on from the events depicted. A gripping and thought-provoking 70 minutes, and well worth a visit.
The Mutant Man is at The Space until 8th April.