Taylor Mac is an American playwright, actor, singer-songwriter, performance artist, director and producer. A Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Drama who has penned 17 full-length theatrical works, Mac’s play Hir is one of a series of four works that are all in some way concerned with cultural polarisation in our world (Hir is the second play in the series and Mac says that, despite each work having its own separate premiere, the four will ultimately be performed together in sequence in a festival based on the Greek Dionysia).
In a production directed by Anthea Williams, Hir has arrived at Belvoir for its Australian premiere. Set in the Central Valley of California, it tells the story of Isaac (Michael Whalley), who’s returned from war, having spent three years working in mortuary services, after being dishonourably discharged from the military for drug abuse. His expectation is that he’ll return to his family home and have to protect his mother, Paige (Helen Thomson), and his sister from his abusive father, Arnold (Greg Stone).
But when Isaac walks through the door of his home, his world is immediately turned upside down. His once violent father has suffered a severe stroke, rendering him essentially helpless. Since that event, Paige has continued to celebrate the end of the patriarchy, intentionally emasculating Arnold (dressing him as a drag clown and making him wear adult nappies) and embracing as much change and as many new ideas as she can – anything that assists her to see the world differently and to change up her life from the abused and oppressed existence she once knew. Her new attitude goes as far as refusing to clean the home, allowing it to accumulate mess across every square inch. It’s a way of taunting Arnold, who used to ensure she thoroughly cleaned the home by ruling with his fist.
As well as the profound change he finds in his parents, Isaac’s younger sibling, Max (Kurt Pimblett), has come out as a transgender male (and ‘hir’ is the gender neutral pronoun by which 17-year-old Max asks to be referred). It’s Max’s ambition to leave the family home and live on an anarchist queer commune.
Isaac is unsurprisingly shocked by the home to which he’s returned (both the state of the physical home itself and its occupants). He’s far from enamoured with the idea of joining this new world. In fact, he wishes that all could be as it was before, even if that so-called state of normalcy was a home filled with domestic violence. That yearning for the life he once knew is compounded by the PTSD he now suffers.
Ultimately, there’s an inexorable home truth that confronts these characters – that regardless of a desire to put your past behind you and pursue a life far removed from what you once knew, actually escaping from where you have come from is much more challenging than you may have imagined. Can the demons actually be exorcised?
It all sounds rather heavy and bleak, but Hir is actually hilariously funny and hugely entertaining. It’s superbly written and serves up a genuinely contemporary take on the dysfunctional family story and offers a commentary on today’s world that delivers much food for thought.
Williams has done excellent work in realising Mac’s text on stage and has an impressive group of actors for the task. Thomson is the undeniable star in the role of Paige, offering Sydney audiences one of the most enjoyable performances on our stages in recent times. Her Paige is endlessly upbeat and overbearing, and she makes the most of every pearler that the script gives her character. But while she’s extremely engaging, there’s something also terribly sad about her – a woman so desperate to inhabit an existence so removed from her past. It’s an outstanding portrayal of a very well-written character.
As former soldier, Isaac, Whalley’s performance is also strong. From the outset, he convinces as a broken man, so unprepared for what he finds at home after spending three years leading a strictly regimented military life. At once, we can’t believe he’d want to restore the former patriarchy, but understand why he so strongly wants – and needs – some sense of order in the household.
Stone is sympathetic as the helpless stroke victim, Arnold. With little dialogue, he succeeds in creating a character that’s quite wretched. While it’s sad to see the feeble state to which Arnold has been reduced, Stone effectively gives us glimpses of his character’s previously aggressive and cruel nature, which in turn makes us sympathise with Paige and understand the joy she derives from seeing him now emasculated.
Rounding out the cast is Pimblett, who is wonderful as Max, the excitable, energetic and intellectual teenager grappling with hirs identity. Max leads a difficult life (references are made in the text to the character having no friends ‘in real life’) and, like Paige, evokes pathos as we observe yet another person who’s resolved to escape a life they cannot stand.
Designer Michael Hankin has created an exceptional, highly detailed set, beautifully realising the family’s Californian home and making tremendous use of the Upstairs Theatre stage. Similarly, he’s perfectly costumed each character.
Hir is a highlight of Belvoir’s 2017 season. It’s a clever, dark comedy with a terrific script that points to the difficulty of change and the cost at which it can come. This is highly recommended.
HIR SEASON DETAILS
Playing until 10 September
Upstairs Theatre – Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills)
Tickets from the box office on 02 9699 3444 or at belvoir.com.au