Photo from Charlie O’Grady
A world without gender is the posited ideal for many these days, myself included – indeed, one of the audience members watching Clare Hennessy’s Transience at Kings Cross Theatre was sporting a t-shirt that proclaimed ‘GENDER IS OVER!’. Such is the case in the sci-fi world where Transience is set: a version of Sydney in which the ‘Age of Unity’ has arrived, difference-based-discrimination is considered to be ‘anti-social,’ and the governing Department of Unity decides to eradicate gender. Contrary to expectations, though, this society is decidedly dystopian.
When a policy of mandatory androgyny is announced, Xander, a transgender guy played by Kate Plimbett, is far from rejoicing. His apprehension is contrasted with Olive, his female best friend played by Julia Christensen, who is naturally more androgynous, proud in her rejection of gender binaries, and willing to give the Department’s erasure of gender a go. By taking a social constructionist view of gender and juxtaposing it with the anxieties of a trans guy who expresses his gender identity humbly, but attaches great importance to it, Transience is able to take typically progressive views of gender and synthesise them in a sophisticated way. Playing two empathetic and likeable characters against each other to explore a lesser-heard perspective about loving and defending your gender takes the conversation to new ground.
Weaker points emerged when the dystopian setting fell into the trap of being too familiar. There were strong echoes of Orwell – suspicious people disappeared, the department knew all its citizens’ activities and memories, and a big brother figure spoke in a robotic-operator voice as if to scream ‘We’re evil! Don’t forget it!’ – which gave the feeling that this was something we’d seen before. Moreover, the clearest message to come from the Department of Unity’s attempts to neutralise citizens’ gender by dressing them in matching jumpsuits was that ‘uniformity and government control are bad’; a trope too repeated by now to be particularly resonant.
When it strayed from its more predictable depictions of a dystopian society, Transience was at its strongest. Monologues from Xander, struggling as he felt the effects of renewed social ostracising – “I’m not some jigsaw puzzle for you to figure out” – were both touching and insightful. Similarly, the honesty that emerged from Xander and Olive’s friendship at particular points of tension was a highlight. ‘I feel like I’m the token trans friend you use to make you feel better about yourself,’ Xander confesses to Olive. She denies this, but says sometimes it does feel like ‘it’s all about you and your issues’. These exchanges, and the sincerity with which they were performed, were a valuable opportunity to look at the nuances of friendship in today’s climate of activism and identity.
The dialogue was punctuated by good humour, and the sophisticated use of lighting and sound contributed to an engaging performance that maintained the audience’s attention right through. The play’s ending was never going to be easy, and Xander and Olive’s ultimate decision to resist the control of the Department of Unity seemed the best way to end with optimistic spirits. It did feel a touch unsatisfying though – you’re left wondering how exactly they’re going to implement this decision, seeing as their rebellion should mean that they would be targeted. The ease with which they decide to rebel against the Department, and the lack of clarity as to how, slightly undermined the convincingness of the sci-fi world.
Despite this, Transience foremost proclaims to be a play about gender and friendship, and it definitely fit the brief. Most valuably, Hennessy takes questions about gender and friendship to a refreshing new place, and the sci-fi setting revitalises a discussion about navigating the challenges we’ll inevitably face as we try to end difference-based-discrimination in the real world. It gets you to think but doesn’t preach, which is a subtlety that’s hard to get right.