My journey to the end of Taylor Mac’s Hir was a long and perilous one, marred by confusion (I showed up late to press night), unprecedented heat (a show was cancelled at the halfway mark due to the punishing sun), and genuine bloodshed (poor Arthur Darvill seemed to slice his finger open in the play’s final scene on my third and final visit to The Bush that week). Having grappled with such tribulations to get to the end of the production, I had hoped to arrive at an emphatic, definitive response to the work, but this tumultuous New Age family drama’s dissection of gender identity has left me a little addled.
Hir is a story of homecoming, a kitchen sink drama for the postmodern age, where a young disgraced marine returns home to see the balance of power upturned – his once neat home dishevelled, his once subservient mother exuberant, his once sister something new entirely. Rather than a welcome home banner, Arthur Darvill’s Isaac is confronted with fairy lights that twinkle LGBTTSQQIAA – an acronym which no amount of Googling will fully decode for me.
Hir and the character its title identifies, Max – played here by a boisterous and prickly Griffyn Gilligan – is obsessed with the constructs of hir identity. Max is deeply isolated, preoccupied with the minutiae of trans-ness rather than the experience of it. Ze defines Isaac as inherently ‘problematic’ in his identity as a straight, white military man, ze sulks and scolds as the adults around hir struggle to define who Max should be. Much time is devoted to the rules that surround pronouns, in carefully explaining the difference between sexuality and gender and reconsidering much of history from a trans perspective – The Mona Lisa is a self-portrait, Noah built a transphobic, cishet-only ark.
This would all be fine, if Nadia Fall’s production did not set its tongue so firmly in its cheek at these assertions. And the play itself seems dead set on laughing at, rather than with, relishing both the irrationality of some of Max’s attitudes and the cruel treatment of Arnold, once the symbol of abusive patriarchy, now an incontinent invalid. This is a script that deals in ideological strokes – as a representative of a tired and cruel younger generation, I can see why it might be gleeful to delight in Arnold’s downfall, but as a fully realised human body on stage, watching an old man force fed improper medication, physically tortured and allowed to sleep in a box and soil himself was difficult to get on board with.
While Darvill spends a lot of time vomiting and being generally affronted by everything that happens on stage, the performances are pretty great. A particular treat is Ashley McGuire’s Paige, who is high spirited and open-hearted in her quest to love and understand Max. The script is often funny and Ben Stones’ set is evocative – a shabby plywood foundation for a crumbling family unit. It’s a sharp, zeitgeist-y and sometimes moving night at the theatre, as the play’s conclusion does slam us back to a kind of emotionally grounded reality. But for me, that movement felt too little too late. The absurdity in Taylor Mac’s ‘absurd realism’ seems to host a serious mean streak.
Hir is at the Bush Theatre until 22nd July. For more details, click here.