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Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story theatre review (Sydney Theatre Company)

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Still Point Turning, which premiered at Wharf 1 Theatre on April 26, is a theatrical biopic charting the distinguished career and tumultuous inner life of Catherine McGregor, arguably Australia’s most famous transgender woman.

The play opens in a hospital room. McGregor reads from her chart – ‘radical amputation of the penis’ and, with a bleak laugh, remarks that ‘gender affirmation surgery’ would be a more positive description of the process she is about to undergo. At one moment she is confiding her fear of dying under the knife to her anesthetist (Chantelle Jamieson); at the next she is chatting amiably about her great passion – cricket. ‘You bewdy’, she remarks in full Ocker mode.

From this opening scene, McGregor’s life is recounted in a series of largely chronological vignettes, beginning with a childhood spent in Toowoomba. McGregor’s various callings – as a military officer trained at Duntroon, a political adviser and speech writer (first for the Labor Party and later for the Liberals), and as a cricket commentator and author are all reprised. Ashley Lyons plays Catherine McGregor’s former self, Malcolm, who is bent on a path of booze and drug fuelled self-destruction, with aggressive conviction.

A love affair with cricket lies at the heart of this very Australian narrative.

The incessant careerist striving and ambition of hypermasculine Malcolm comes at an immense cost. Persistent suicidal ideation is the flip side to public success. Battling gender dysphoria requires a different kind of courage. And the decision to seek surgery is the beginning of a process of healing that inner pain. As Catherine remarks, ‘I did the bloke thing perfectly’. But to continue living, McGregor had no choice other than to embrace transformation, both internal (sobriety and a newfound sense of equanimity) and external. Heather Mitchell as Catherine McGregor does a remarkable job of conveying the sheer effort of this transformation, with the determined poise and intellectuality of her character shining through.

A love affair with cricket lies at the heart of this very Australian narrative. McGregor’s father, a Kokoda veteran, died when she was eight, bequeathing his son a cricket bat made of Sarawak willow. The young Malcolm (Andrew Guy) and the older Catherine lie foetally curled on either side of the bat, grappling with grief. It is cricket that connects these two versions of self. Catherine’s epiphany, her ability to become herself, is experienced during cricketer Rahul Dravid’s (Nicholas Brown) Bradman Oration in 2011. And it is the acceptance of this new self by the cricket fraternity (the program includes what might best be termed testimonials from Jason Gillespie and Ian Chappell) that brings solace and a sense of continuity.

Director Priscilla Jackman attempts to lift the play from realist docudrama through the use of an ensemble chorus, often used to enact Catherine McGregor’s inner conflicts.

Writer/director Priscilla Jackman crafted Still Point Turning from extensive interviews with McGregor. The theatrical risk of this process is of creating a kind of stilted autobiography. At times, this production is directly didactic – a doctor delivers a lecture on gender dysphoria; McGregor rebuts LGBTI critics, explaining that she is firmly a trans woman and that theorising about non-binary genders does not capture her experience.

Jackman attempts to lift the play from realist docudrama through the use of an ensemble chorus, often used to enact McGregor’s inner conflicts. Certainly, the staging does not shy away from overt symbolism. Nevertheless, I frequently felt as though I was watching a staged version of This Is Your Life. Given McGregor’s high media profile, including an appearance on Australian Story (‘Call Me Cate’, 2014), this sense of crossover between television and stage speaks to the mechanisms of contemporary celebrity culture.

The politics of transgender staging are complex. In 2017 Trans Scripts by playwright/producer Paul Lucas was performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It featured the stories of seven trans women enacted by a cast of almost entirely trans female actors. In general, trans artists are becoming increasingly visible, both behind the scenes and onstage and at times, a number of these artists have objected to the presentation of trans stories by cisgender (non-trans) playwrights and performers. This production has partially met such objections by employing trans artist and advocate Kelly Glanney as a consultant.

Doubtless, the decision to cast Heather Mitchell as Catherine McGregor remains open to critique. But no one could deny the strength of her performance.

In common with other representations of trans celebrities, Still Point Turning is centered on tropes of authenticity, self-reflexivity and self-revelation. The idea of being trapped inside the wrong body has become the normative understanding of transgender identity. McGregor describes her experience of being in this wrong body as ‘a waking dream, wrapped in cellophane and covered in molasses’. It is only when she surgically becomes a woman that she can be unwrapped, the gift of a congruent selfhood finally emerging in her late 50s.

McGregor was born in 1956. In the decades that have passed since then, the representation of transgender experience has, in the main, shifted from a rhetoric of perversion and deviance to one of sympathetic understanding. Still Point Turning is an important part of this shift, both reflecting changing attitudes and adopting a specifically pedagogical mission to educate the public about the experience of being transgender. Despite these representational shifts, transgender people are still marginalised in social and political life – depression, unemployment, suicide and the threat of physical violence all continue. Still Point Turning is a celebration of one trans woman’s story. Together, McGregor and Jackman have gifted the audience with a complex and quintessentially Australian account of transgender experience.

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Still Point Turning:The Catherine McGregor Story is playing at Wharf 1 Theatre until May 26. Photo by Philip Erbacher

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