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Hir (Bush Theatre, London): Review

hir Send in the clowns. Ashley McGuire (left) and Andy Williams (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Hir takes everything you thought you knew about gender, puts it through the garbage disposal, and splays it in astounding and grotesque autopsy.

In Hir, Issac has come home from the war dishonorably discharged and looking for home comforts. But home is not what he remembered it to be; his father has had a stroke, is now invalid, and at the mercy of his mother; and his sister is now a trans-man. Among the family and gender chaos, Issac tries to find the meaning of home and gender identity.

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Brothers and sisters. Griffyn Gilligan (left) and Arthur Darvill (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Writing

Even if you’re not clued up on trans and gender issues, you can hardly say trans is an invisible subject nowadays, with people like Caitlin Jenner and Chelsea Manning being major public figures. Indeed, we now have two trans plays on in London at the same time; John Brittain’s brilliant comedy about transitioning, Rotterdamtransferring for a limited run at the Arts Theatre, and; the European premier of Taylor Mac’s Hir at the Bush Theatre. Actually, to call Hir a “trans play” is a bit of a misnomer because it’s actually more of a play with a trans character in it. Although tans issues are integral to the text and themes, what Hir does is blast all notions of gender identity, especially masculinity, to smithereens leaving it in the ashes of belonging and identity. There’s a whole cavalcade of themes and issues in Hir that are intrinsically interlinked in this tornado of a play: we’re certainly not in comfy Kansas anymore. Indeed, it’s one of those things where it’s difficult to know where to start unraveling it all. As well as exploring male identity, there’s: revenge, toxic conservatism versus toxic liberalism, patriarchy versus matriarchy, post-traumatic stress disorder, disability, addiction, sexual violence: the list goes on.

Mac’s character’s are also just as complex. All are severely flawed people but each with something you can connect with: something human and familiar among Mac’s “absurd realism”. But even then you end up deeply questioning your empathy for them. Yes, the father, Arnold, deserves his emasculation at the hands of Paige for the abuse he inflicted on the family, but you still can’t deny that such treatment is undoubtedly inhumane and cruel. Then there’s the question of whether Paige’s self-discovery lands on the side of liberation and enlightenment or deluded pretense?

If you’re thinking that this is a lot for any play to tackle, you’d be right. Indeed, it’s this highly complex and incredibly intelligent clusterfuck of themes that is Hir’s only negative: it’s just a bit too much. In Act I, trying to go through some of the lines of reasoning, theory, and logic behind gender issues in particular, makes the pace drag a little as well as tiring out the audience. Even someone who is clued-up on trans issues like myself can still be very challenged and find the onslaught of themes difficult to take on-board without feeling a little overwhelmed. But what can Mac do? Start to simplify and trivilaise the thinking behind the issues and you do them a great disservice, not to mention you lose the foundation that Mac builds upon to bring the play to a powder-keg close. The weight of what’s going on has the potential to alienate the people who really need to see it, or simply bore them.

But, if you stick with Hir, it does turn out to be an unforgettable theatrical experience, though “enjoyable” is probably not the word to use. Hir is a play of incredible impact and smarts that not only demands your attention, but rewards it by evolving into something utterly thrilling, though borderline horrific: an insane avalanche of fucked uppity-ness that is nail-bitingly intense. There are moments that are almost unbearable to sit through due to the extreme dysfunction of the family, along with the insane cruelty of some of the things that happen. But when mixed in with a sense of humour that redefines “bleak” you can’t help but keep yourself transfixed: challenging, twisted, harrowing, and hilarious in equal parts.

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You can’t spell “smother” without “mother”. Ashley McGuire as Paige Conner in ‘Hir’. Photograph: Courtesy of Ellie Kurttz.

Direction & Production

The production for Hir is just as phenomenal as its cast and text. Ben Stones’ stage design puts you smack bang against the walls of a traverse cross-section of the Connor’s home, with an attention to detail is just astounding: everything from insulation in the beams, to the maelstrom of mess that we initially find the home in. On top of this you have Elliot Griggs’ exceptional lighting design coupled with Elena Peña’s equally exceptional sound design. Almost without noticing, Griggs’ lighting brings a real sense of claustrophobia through clever execution. Things will grow dim whilst a spot intensifies on a character, making the room look like it’s closing in on them. Likewise, Peña’s near omnipresent white noise comes in and out in these moments too, adding an aural intensity to the action to compliment the visual.

Nadia Fall’s direction is pacey but doesn’t quiet go as hell for leather as could easily have been done. There’s a sense of control and restraint that enables the really disturbing moments to absolutely root themselves into your countenance and firmly shove you out of your comfort zone. Mac’s deteriorating family portrait is given the time to painfully and grotesquely peel under Fall’s watch, making Hir equally as sumptuous as it is frightening.

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Stroke of genuis. Andy Williams as Arnold Conner in ‘Hir’. Photograph: Courteys of Ellie Kurttz.

Cast

There’s an astonishing quartet for Hir. Griffyn Gilligan really captures not just the desperation of adolescence but fleeting constantly between obedient child and radical queer: a perfect pawn and provocateur. Gilligan really gets across the sense of unsurety and impatience and the sheer flux of transitioning. Arthur Darvill as Issac is also brash, broken, and bolshie. There’s a real sense of animalistic anger and fear that bristles out of every part of Darvill’s physicality that makes them a compelling watch. Darvill’s sense of energy is one of standing on the precipice of reason and it’s frighteningly good. Their dry-retching is also incredibly commendable, but the less said about that, the better!

It’s really the parents in Hir that completely steal the show, though. Ashley McGuire as Paige is as tilted a matriarch as they come: all smiles and politeness but bubbles with a demonic sadism and disturbance. McGuire gives a performance of daunting kapow that knocks you for six, encapsulating a Frankenstein’s all-American-monster-mom of unparalleled terrorism whilst reflecting the fractures caused by the worst of patriarchy.

Andy Williams as invalid stroke-sufferer Arnold is also brilliantly performed. Never mocking in its portrayal of disability (thankfully), Williams never lets go of the monstrous aggression that’s underneath the skin of their humiliated vulnerability: a man who, despite their stroke-addled brain, has still got some fierce and dangerous fight in them. William’s presence always makes the scene uneasy and harrowing as both the victim of incredibly inhumane treatment, but also an utter bastard who deserves every thing they get.

Verdict

An apocalyptic queer calamity on gender, Hir is sheer fist-gnawing brilliance.

Hir plays at the Bush Theatre, London, W12 8LJ, until 22 July 2017. Tickets are £20 (concessions available). To book, visit www.bushtheatre.co.uk.