Constructed as verbatim theatre out of interviews Catherine McGregor has given over her lifetime, Still Point Turning: the Catherine McGregor Story is less a narrative, or the ever popular trans narrative, and more a staged biopic, simply explaining what happened and what it felt like for McGregor to live through it. I had a lot of misgivings about this production when it was first announced; thinking that with her politics and position, McGregor didn’t have anything new to say to me. After reading assistant director Charles O’Grady’s Audrey Journal article about his experience within the production and considering McGregor’s impact on Australian discourse throughout her transition, I realised I was approaching this story all wrong.
The script recounts three main periods in McGregor’s life: as a young child, during early adulthood, and into present day. Throughout each, she narrates her thoughts and memories, switching between real time recounting (Andrew Guy as child, Ashley Lyons as adult) and retrospectively connecting her past to her present (Heather Mitchell). In this way the play is set chronologically, to reveal the way each event compounded and eventuated in McGregor as she stands today. The interviews writer and director Priscilla Jackman used to construct the script show McGregor from vulnerable, honest, personal to reflective and nostalgic to defensive, political, and fierce. She has lived a very public life in a way, but she also demonstrates a willingness to part the curtain and let her experiences truly show. With her consistent position that she is not a poster girl for trans women or the universal trans experience, McGregor has a particular strength in her ability to share and speak openly.
That being said, if you’re coming to this production looking for the tragic trans story of the sad and broken, you’re not really going to get it here. While the production is honest in the brutality of transphobia and gender dysmorphia, it spends equal time focusing on the joys of McGregor’s life, most especially cricket. Mitchell’s enthusiasm for the words of Indian cricket great Rahul Dravid (Nicholas Brown) is palpable and a warming reminder of what true passion can bring to a person. The return to cricket after military and political conditioning was often a welcome reprieve in the production.
Because of the dreamy quality of stepping into and out of time with McGregor’s life in the narration, the staging has a similarly dreamy quality. Set above everything is a large circular LED display like a futuristic announcement board that literally displayed the time and place of action. With enormous screens pulled around the display to symbolise various actual and imagined locations and four astroturf climbing walls along the back wall, the set regularly dwarfed the actors on stage while also imposing a constant military-cum-medical-cum-sci-fi pseudo-reality. The props were similarly large including a life-sized pink unicorn and a collection of hospital gurneys. The design blurred the distinction between how the events unfolded in real time and the enlarged aspect they developed in McGregor’s memories.
While McGregor spoke to the audience, the ensemble often engaged in elaborate choreography that sometimes, but not always, incorporated the large props and screens. While I can understand the necessity of filling the space and minimising the similarities between McGregor’s monologues and TED Talks, the choreography more often than not seemed clumsy and poorly integrated. Most definitely when using the props which were large, difficult to manage, and required much more effort than was returned by the effect. Instead of smooth transition between movements and moments, the performance of the choreography didn’t allow for any surprises or gentle subtleties.
The production all came together in the final moments where McGregor elaborates on the emotional connection between feeling, gender, and appearance in her experience as a trans woman. The ghostly cold backlight illuminates the ensemble through repeated cricket movements. The whole production comes down to a beautiful distilled moment of truth in Catherine McGregor’s story that incorporates all the came before and looks forward to what’s next.
Still Point Turning: the Catherine McGregor Story is running at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 Theatre from April 27th – May 26th.