Hir, Bush Theatre – Review

‘Speculative’ tales about gender often make interesting points about values, society and interpersonal relationships (Joe Penhall’s Birthday, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness being but a few that spring to mind). Playwright Taylor Mac takes a premise that is ‘absurd’ – unlikely, but not impossible – to explore the ramifications of implementing a politically correct microcosm.

7 Arthur Darvill in Hir Bush Theatre Credit Ellie Kurttz
Isaac (Arthur Darvill)

Directed by Nadia Fall, HIR’s set in California – which in itself is very important. At a quasi-realistlc level, one would imagine if the play took place deep in conservative Middle America where gender labels and social roles are ‘self-evident’, HIR would have turned out very differently… Around 7am, Isaac (Arthur Darvill) returns home from his stint in the army. Much to his horror, he finds everything about his home has changed. If he was initially alarmed by the state of the house with dirty clothes on the floor and the unwashed kitchenware, nothing could prepare him for what is family are like now…

While Isaac may have been in the army, he isn’t your stereotypical ‘macho’ soldier. His role was in Mortuary Affairs, collecting body parts from the battlefield. This job is a metaphor for his life if ever there was one. A man from the military with a developed sense of empathy makes for a complex person, whose sense of duty is tempered by compassion and what he feels to be right. Small wonder that it takes him quite some time to come to terms with what’s happened with the family.

1 Andy Williams in Hir Bush Theatre Credit Ellie Kurttz
Arnold (Andy Williams)

Isaac’s father Arnold (Andy Williams – no, not the ‘easy listening’ singer!) wears a ladies’ dressing gown, but was is more striking is the grotesque clown make-up and rainbow wig he wears. Even though his father’s suffered a stroke, what’s kept him in this docile, inert state is a regular cocktail of drugs – with a heavy, supplemental dose of estrogen… Physically, Isaac’s mother Paige (Ashley McGuire) is exactly the same, but in terms of her attitude, ideas and vocabulary, there’s no comparison to the person he knew years ago. Gone is the woman who put up with her husband’s beligerent behaviour. In her place is someone is au fait with all the politically correct terminology regarding sexual identity (cisgender, heteronormative, etc). However on her lips, it doesn’t feel like a natural development from enlightenment and equanimity, but shrill – a lexicon to batter a lesser intellect under submission. Ironically, despite her new-found iconoclastic nature, words are her own ‘sacred cow’. She indulges in all sorts of questionable behaviour now, but like TV versions of R-rated movies ‘bad language’ is prohibited… While Isaac doesn’t have the wherewithal to refute Paige’s arguments by words alone, he knows deep down that ‘self improvement’ at the expense of others’ well-being is a hollow exercise. Help is at hand for Isaac, but it comes from an unexpected source…

Griffyn Gilligan

Max (Griffyn Gilligan) – Isaac’s ‘sister’ who has undergone hormone therapy and uses the gender-neutral term ‘hir’, is a catalyst for much of the play’s events. Initially Paige’s ‘teacher’ in modern sexual and gender politics, Paige extrapolates what’s she’s learnt and put her own spin on what ’empowerment’ means. Max, however, is ‘neutral’ in every sense and as Paige later finds out, ‘freedom-to-be’ is a doubled-edged sword…

Underpinning the whole play is Paige’s journey – the choices she’s made and the things she still clings on to. For all of her ‘freedom’ now, she’s still a prisoner of the past. Subjected to Arnold’s abuse previously, instead of leaving him before or now and be truly free, she chooses to stay and implement the daily routine of ‘humiliation’. But her self-esteem is still fragile, as Arnold in moment of lucidity nullifies her arguments – not with rhetoric or even violence, but the flick of his finger…

3 Arthur Darvill and Ashley McGuire in Hir Bush Theatre Credit Ellie Kurttz
Paige (Ashley McGuire) ‘preps’ Arnold’s ‘milkshake’…  / All photos © Ellie Kurttz

Looking at the play in a meta-context, the scenarios in the play aren’t so absurdist at all. If ‘PC thinking’ officially becomes the norm, but it’s not implemented by education and patience but by rote… coercion… humiliation… then the hegemony’s ‘old way of thinking’ won’t be erased. Instead it will just be buried from sight, until a person or event provides the opportunity for it to resurface unchallenged. How else would you expain the rise of Trump and Brexit vote result? People told opinon polls one thing and away from public scrutiny, did another… If HIR teaches us one thing, it’s that even if ‘liberal thinking’ is in the ascendent, open dialogue still needs to exist to all. If the implementation is as didactic as the far right of the spectrum, there is little to choose between the two.

© Michael Davis 2017


HIR runs at the Bush Theatre until 22nd July 2017.

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