HIR, Upstairs Belvoir at Belvoir St, 12 August-10 September 2017. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - Helen Thomson and Greg Stone; below - Greg Stone, Helen Thomson, Michael Whalley and Kurt Pimblett
Taylor Mac’s Hir (pronounced “here”) from 2014, is possibly the most radical play to be staged in Sydney this year; even more so because it is relentlessly funny and as dark as pitch and as of the moment as tonight’s news. And if that’s not enough, this production, directed by Anthea Williams, is simply brilliant.
It begins – for the audience – with time to examine one of the more confronting and fascinating living spaces ever encountered (set and costume design, Michael Hankin). It’s part hoarder’s heaven, part slovenly nightmare, partly the party central that time forgot, and part cheap, working class shit-hole.
It begins for Isaac (Michael Whalley), a US Marine, when he comes home from three years away at the war to find he can’t open the front door because it’s blocked by heaped up stuff that should have been chucked out months ago. Directed to the back door by his mother Paige (Helen Thomson), he walks into a dreadful, vivid, portrait of under-class America now – a whimsical amalgam of the colourful lies of The Parent Trap and the monotone truths of Goya’s Disasters of War.
Slumped on a sofa staring at a silent TV is Isaac’s father Arnold (Greg Stone), a man he remembers as a bullying, violent slob. Now his face is grotesquely made up, he wears a bizarre wig and is dressed in a diaphanous frock; and can barely speak. He was once a plumber and red-blooded American male until he lost his job to a Chinese-American woman. He’s had a stroke and his one-time downtrodden wife has taken the reins and put him in the place to which he once consigned her. It’s a dish of revenge eaten very cold as she keeps the air-con on high even though he shivers and complains of the chill.
The final shock of homecoming for Isaac is when his teenage sister Maxine finally joins the family from her bedroom hideaway (once Isaac’s room – he must now sleep on the couch apparently) and is revealed as Max (Kurt Pimblett): in transition and sporting a shadow of beard on his jaw and an attitude to match.
In microcosm, this is one of those families that represents the end of the American Dream of the 1950s. In this instance, however, it also hints at the beginning of something interesting, exciting and – for many – terrifying. You can see in it why the pathetic contradictions of white nationalism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism are bubbling up right now under the guise of “Make America Great Again”.
Isaac, whose army job was in Mortuary Affairs where he gathered and sorted body parts for distribution to families, was hoping for something a little less familiar when he got home, but alas. Meanwhile Max is at once a sulky teenager but also refuses conventional gender pronouns and happily takes his ’mones; and Paige is merrily determined to free her family from old stereotypes even as she shackles them with her determination to control anything vaguely masculine. She does this with a water spray bottle and it’s glorious for its incongruity in a society where in many states it’s legal to walk down a street openly carrying an AK47.
Hir is an extraordinary mix of realism and absurdity, tragedy and comedy. The play itself is entertaining and challenging in equal measure and there can be few who have experienced anything like it before. This in itself is a thrill. Add to that a magnificent, crazy brave and funny performance from Helen Thomson. She fills the stage with astounding energy and intelligence and is astonishing even by her standards.
Michael Whalley and Greg Stone give her space and support as well as crafting three-dimensional yet sad, done-for men of different generations but similar fates. Rounding out the quartet of fine performances in his assurance and credibility in a unique role (a trans actor playing a trans character) is young newcomer Kurt Pimblett. Max is not only a wordy and tricky creature but also there is a kind of prior notoriety and spotlight cast on the actor playing him which are both hot and harsh. Pimblett carries it off with aplomb and conviction; a remarkable achievement.
Altogether, Hir is one of the most exciting, funny and energising plays to be seen in Sydney this year. Whatever your personal pronoun of choice – do see it. Recommended.