Sunday, 2 July 2017

Review: Hir – Bush Theatre

After serving three years in the Marines, Isaac (Arthur Darvill) returns home to his small town in Central Valley, America to find out that things aren’t exactly how he left them. Isaac’s father (Andy Williams), having suffered a stroke, can no longer string a sentence together and is forced into the daily attire of a dress and clownish face paint by Isaac’s mother, Paige (Ashley McGuire). Under the same umbrella of humiliation, Paige regularly sprays him with water as a punishment for bad behaviour, or years of patriarchal domestic abuse.

As Isaac fails to get his head around all of this, Paige informs him with glee that his sister Maxine is now his brother Max, and has taken it upon himself to educate their mother on gender politics. Throughout the play, Paige spouts off regurgitated lessons from Max on his preferred non-gendered pronouns, ‘hir’ and ‘ze’, and regularly shouts out jarring phrases such as ‘paradigm shift’, as one would ceremoniously punctuate a game of bingo.

Under unfortunate circumstances, Act Two was cancelled on my first watch, and I left the theatre feeling quite confused about how I felt about the play. The comedy was a little abrasive, and although a lot of interesting and important points are raised surrounding gender and sexuality, it felt as though a collection of stereotyped characters were conveying a supposedly progressive and anti-stereotype discourse.

Whether it was the result of another week’s worth of performances or entering the theatre in a different frame of mind, on the second watch the satirical humour seemed to ease the flow of the piece, allowing for what otherwise could be awkward transitions into an array of complex subjects.

With an established understanding of the play and a familiarity with the characters, I could focus a lot more on the performance this time around, and moments of superb acting. Arthur Darvill carries an exhausting and thorough performance through confusion and disbelief, to PSTD-fuelled vomiting and frustration. Although there is perhaps a little too much reliance on expression through shouting across both acts, there is no doubting his eventual explosion. Ashley McGuire and Griffyn Gilligan provide an exquisitely-balanced comic double-act, with their contrastingly moving final moments affirming the strength of their performance.

Although these final moments certainly hit hard, Nadia Fall’s production, or more likely Taylor Mac’s play, never seems quite sure of itself, swooping between gender politics, PTSD, broken family relationships and the American notion of home, before landing on an emotionally draining ending that seems to set domestic violence, as a symbol for aggressive patriarchy, at the root of it all. Whilst this has the potential to be a valid point, the expression of Max and Paige’s beliefs through prior absurdist moments somewhat belittles the gender fluidity for which they are fighting, as if their efforts have been a way of gaining control in their space – escapism over true belief.

Regardless of the real message and purpose of the play, one thing is certain: you leave the theatre feeling as though you have been hit over the head with a hefty volume on gender politics. And you can take from that what you will.

*I was gifted this ticket in exchange for a review, but all words and opinions are my own.
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