Hir – Bush Theatre, London

Writer: Taylor Mac
Director: Nadia Fall
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

We are all shaped, to some extent, by our parents and the behaviours we observe growing up. Whatever our concept of home, it is somehow combined with the characteristics of that family life, familiar, embedded and, we hope, unchanging. How disturbing then to return home from several years absence to find not only the physical house changed but your family are no longer the people you once knew.

After an acclaimed run in New York, Taylor Mac’s 2015 play Hir has arrived at the Bush Theatre, examining what changing concepts of gender mean for self-understanding and the extent to which ‘new’ ways of seeing the world are better or just more complicated in a still old-fashioned society.

Dishonourably discharged from the Marines, Isaac returns to California full of longing and desperate for the comforts of home, but what he finds is a house in disarray, his sister Max has become a man and his father Arnold is wearing a nightdress. Fighting against the patriarchal confines of marriage, Isaac’s mother Paige embraces a happy chaos but clashes violently with Isaac as he struggles to adjust to a new way of living.

Taylor Mac has a clear and precise vision for how his work should be presented, giving detailed notes in the script on the setting, delivery of lines, character traits and especially the tone, which he defines as “absurd realism”. On the whole, he can be pretty satisfied with director Nadia Fall’s interpretation which balances the peculiarities of the text and scenario with its more dramatic and politicised moments.

The play is purposefully unusual in style and, somewhat ambitiously, attempting to cover a huge range of social issues from the correct pronouns for transgender people, compulsory land purchase by large companies, the effects of military service and the intricacies of a family who no longer know each other. Mac’s writing introduces continuous loops of logic that take the audience in and out of arguments, as they bat back and forth between Paige and Isaac, which are entertaining, but sometimes veer into a lecture or a series of textbook statements.

Yet, Mac’s creation of character is extremely skilful and the viewer shares Isaac’s sense of overwhelming perplexity which builds into an enjoyable battle of wills with his equally determined mother in Act Two. Mac plays with our perspectives on each character throughout and never allows sympathy to linger too long, which is a double-edged sword, making for interesting plot developments but keeping the audience at a distance.

Arthur Darvill and Ashley McGuire are particularly impressive as Isaac and Paige, bringing an explosive dynamic to their relationship that builds slowly throughout the play. Darvill is at a high-pitch from the start, capturing Isaac’s bewilderment and frustration at the unexpected changes to his home. And as the story unfolds, he becomes a ball of suppressed fury as he channels traditional masculinity and normal social behaviours to try to impose control, all the while hinting at the trauma of his military experience in what is a physically intense and intellectual performance.

McGuire gets to enjoy most of the deadpan comedy as she merges a veneer of hippy-like relaxation and promotion of gender-freedoms with a tyrannical control of the home. Her enjoyment of chaos and degradation of her husband reveal a barely concealed bitterness in McGuire’s performance for the years of serving an angry partner and leaves the audience wondering whether she genuinely supports Max’s transgender lifestyle or is exacting an elaborate revenge for past hurts.

Andy Williams as Arnold is largely a broken figure, a man who once controlled everyone around him, reduced to an emasculated puppet, but he has an excellent scene with Darvill where some of his old character is drawn out. Griffyn Gilligan’s Max becomes a prop for Issac and Paige, bouncing confusedly between the brother ‘ze’ adores and the mother ‘ze’ must obey, while searching for an independent voice.

Hir is in many ways a classic domestic drama about a family dealing with the aftermath of war and change. It’s light absurdist approach gives it a faintly cartoon-like feel in the early stages but it settles into a form of domestic tragedy about people who find themselves at a moment when past and future collide, and cannot change who they really are.

Runs until 22 July 2017 | Image: Ellie Kurttz

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