The trouble with Harry (Melbourne Festival)

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Think of those jaundiced men in brown suits and felt hats who populate the paintings of John Brack. Flattened men, at the bar or making their way up Collins Street, ready to be folded up and filed away for another night, each into his own suburban box. They’re all surface and all conformity. What lies beneath? Are they more than they seem? You never know. After all, Harry Crawford might be one of those men.

The Trouble with Harry is a fictionalised account of the life of Eugenia Falleni, a transgender man (female to male) who settled in Sydney in 1898 at the age of 23. There he changed his name to Harry Crawford and, in 1913, married a widow, Annie Birkett, who later died in suspicious circumstances. Written by Lachlan Philpott, the play presents a hostile vision of life in Australia in the first decades of the 20th century: a world of fear, damaged spirits and loneliness.

Philpott uses a choric, Under Milkwood-type voyeurism to mediate our encounter with Harry and his family. Two narrators, played by Dion Mills and Emma Palmer, are our nosy neighbourhood guides, always peering in at windows and speculating in quick, lyrical flashes about the past and future of those within. Under Alyson Campbell’s direction, the scenes move swiftly, sometimes crossing the width of the large auditorium at Northcote Town Hall , sometimes concentrated under a single spotlight.

History is swapped like a gossip across the picket fences. Was it like this or like that in the Crawford home? We’re shown different alternatives. Did Annie know her husband’s secret, or was she duped by his bulging wood and rubber “thing”? Was she perhaps a lesbian? Philpott thinks it possible. So do the neighbours. But what about Annie’s death — murder or accident? That question is left open.

The script is tremendously atmospheric. Whereas in Milkwood, Dylan Thomas’s quaint seaside town has a kind of pastoral glow, a sense of swelling life, here in the suburbs of north Sydney, the season has turned. “Death,” declares Harry’s daughter, “death is everywhere.” Sinister details multiply. Lice and slaters and snails creep through each scene. A bantam chook turns out to be a rooster after all. In a bedroom, a Bible lies open at the story of Herodias — a double image of cruel daughters.

This is a play with a special kinship to Patrick White’s Sarsaparilla plays. In White’s A Cheery Soul, for instance, an indignant husband is forced to defend the harsh brightness of the globes he uses in his home. “We’ve got nothing to hide,” he says. Not so in the Crawford house, where Rob Sowinski’s lighting is as dim as a kerosene flame. And the menace of Philpott’s suburbs, with each home hides a hurt soul, naturally recalls the little brick boxes of White’s Season at Sarsaparilla, where you can hear sleeping spirits rubbing against the walls

With headphones on, we listen in to what the neighbours are saying, and it’s like listening to the whispering of ghosts.

The headphones, in fact, are a bit irritating. The Northcote Town Hall is a challenging space, and without the headphones and the miked-up actors, voices do echo and crowd. And headphones work well with the theme of the play. They are the high-tech equivalent of the empty frames that signify walls. We can see everything and we can hear everything. If this is a kind of Season at Sarsaparilla, it’s White after Benedict Andrews, after the Big Brother Sarsaparilla he invented for the Sydney Theatre Company in 2007, a world of total surveillance. But, still, the sound quality is not so good, and at times it is easier and more enjoyable to dispense with the technology and just lean forward.

Maude Davey is extraordinarily good as Harry. She doesn’t have the masculine features of Falleni, but she carries herself as a man convincingly. Crawford in the pub. Crawford with his step-son. Crawford with his tomatoes. It’s a memorable catalogue. Caroline Lee as his wife, Annie, fidgets and hides, like a bat behind the curtains, a prisoner of her fear that the neighbours will discover the family secret, is tense and stiff, and unpredictable. Elizabeth Nabben is sourness itself as Mr Crawford’s daughter.

On every wall the City of Northcote coat of arms reminds us pro bono ad meliora – from good things to better. For Harry Crawford and his family, things go from bad to worse. The Trouble with Harry is a dark play. But there is a major reveal at the end which opens us onto something new and spectacular. It’s a nod to Harry’s achievement in imagining a new life for himself, a life where he is free to be himself, with his wife and his tomatoes. That, at least, is a vision worth savouring.

The Trouble with Harry as part of the Melbourne Festival is at Northcote Town Hall until November 8. Image of Maude Davey as Harry and Caroline Lee as Annie.

MKA – The Trouble With Harry from MKA – Theatre of New Writing on Vimeo.

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