The Melodrama of Maz Murray

The artist’s films at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea, foreground trans and non-binary concerns while appealing to an audience beyond the community

BY Juliet Jacques in Exhibition Reviews | 07 MAY 24

Maz Murray’s new film, Principal Boy (2024), presented alongside Thigh Rise (2023) and a range of sets and props at Focal Point Gallery, raises a series of intriguing questions. Firstly, how audiences used to seeing trans and non-binary people as minor characters in narratives created by cisgender people might engage with art made by and for trans and non-binary people. Secondly, what trans and non-binary artists might do to make our work more ‘accessible’ and, lastly, the extent to which we should.

Maz Murray, ‘Principal Boy’, 2024, installation view, including Gaby Sahhar’s Truth and Kinship, 2020, film. Courtesy: the artists and Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea; photograph: Anna Lukala

These two films appear in the main space, with a third, Laindon (2018), playing on a screen outside, alongside works by Amy Pennington and Gaby Sahhar. One significant difference between Thigh Rise, about a trans man who lives in a giant trans woman’s boot, and Principal Boy, about a transmasculine person who wants a role in a pantomime traditionally reserved for a woman playing a man, is the budget: Murray’s latest film received Arts Council funding. The result is a discernible improvement in make-up, costumes and film stock.

On-set images of the film Principal Boy, 2023. Courtesy: Maz Murray; photograph: Charlie Hurst

Thigh Rise makes a virtue of its lack of funds. Using cardboard cut-outs for backdrops, it slots into a low-budget tradition that stretches from Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić’s Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1928) – made for US$97, the equivalent of US$1750 today – to the Kuchar Brothers and beyond. I name American influences because this, combined with Murray’s clear affection for B-movies (most obviously Nathan H. Juran’s Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, 1958), make Thigh Rise feel like an American film, even though its set represents the ugly corporate towers that have sprung up across London in recent years. In a similar vein to Florey and Vorkapić’s satire, this brief romantic farce feels like a calling card for more ambitious projects, establishing an ensemble cast for the future. But the film works on its own terms, too: it’s full of endearingly silly jokes that will appeal to trans viewers, and to fans of anything from Ishirō Honda’s Godzilla (1954) to Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). It comes with the knowing catharsis of the jilted trans women stomping the set in stiletto boots.

Maz Murray, ‘Principal Boy’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea photograph: Anna Lukala

By contrast, Principal Boy could not be more British, exploring the quintessential national art of pantomime in a register akin to teen-focused Channel 4 soap operas, such as Hollyoaks (1995–ongoing). Some of Thigh Rise’s cast reappear within a larger group of trans actors, frustrated as their auditioners ignore their monologues about the complex realities of trans living and ask them just to utter clichés. This prods at the limits of ‘visibility’, valued by liberal activists in the early 2010s, but subsequently proven to be a dead end within a rightward-lurching political-media culture that became obsessed with quashing it. Forced to compete for the handful of roles open to them, the actors fight amongst themselves until the final song brings them back together. Murray uses colour beautifully, with the actors and their costumes breaking out of a drab small-town building, and the script balances its anger with humour: ‘She’s not a trans elder, she’s just from Essex,’ being one of several memorable lines.

Maz Murray, ‘Principal Boy’, 2024, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea; photograph: Anna Lukala

This joke encapsulates Principal Boy’s refusal to compromise on showing trans and non-binary concerns and language, whilst still managing to appeal beyond the community. Murray put the film’s costumes in the foyer for visitors to try on – apparently a big hit with children, providing a platform for adults to open up discussions about the existence of LGBTQ+ people. In their own small way, gestures like this – alongside the bigger act of creating work exclusively for trans and non-binary people – feel like a step beyond visibility towards liberation. Given the current climate for us in the UK, that seems like a way off, but I will gladly accept more films by Murray and their cast as a transitional demand.

Maz Murray's ‘Principle Boy’ is on view at Focal Point Gallery, Southend-on-Sea until 15 June

Main image: On-set images of the film Principal Boy (detail), 2023. Courtesy: Maz Murray; photograph: Charlie Hurst

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.