New comedies are often given great leeway. People want to laugh, especially in difficult times such as those embroiling the UK at the moment. But not everything is funny, although everything probably has the capacity to be funny, if the tone and approach and context is right. Hir is billed as a “sly, subversive comedy” but it is tragic, rather than comic, in a number of ways.
I’m all about the metaphor now.
One can imagine a sly, subversive comedy about the traumas of returned armed forces personnel. Hir is not that play.
One can imagine a sly, subversive comedy about the vengeance an abused spouse takes on her abuser when the opportunity arises. Hir is not that play.
One can imagine a sly, subversive comedy about gender transition and the way society is ill-equipped to provide a helpful, welcoming environment for the transition. Hir is not that play.
One can imagine a sly, subversive comedy about the fall of white patriarchy and the rise of a different order. Hir is not that play.
One can imagine a sly, subversive comedy about the crumbling of the American dream, one that seeks to illuminate that issue through a uniquely dysfunctional family. Hir is not that play.
Although there are occasional laughs, more if you like laughing at convulsive vomiting or the cruel humiliation of a fellow human being, Hir is mostly tragically unfunny. Indeed, it is a highly uncomfortable watch, and one that does not reward patience or attention with either revelatory insight or new perspectives.
Nadia Fall directs without certainty. There is no overwhelming style about the piece. Partly realistic, partly absurdist, part farce, part comedy of bad manners, Taylor Mac’s play simply doesn’t work here as theatre; Fall’s direction helps it in no significant way. Mac suffuses everything with anger; but anger absent empathy is cold and forbidding. Revulsion and, ultimately, boredom is really the only reaction to the proceedings here.
In a disadvantaged place in America, a small family unit has disintegrated. Dad has had a stroke. Mum has seized that opportunity to imprison him and to drug him and abuse him in retaliation for decades of violent mistreatment. Son has gone to a war zone to be a mortuarty assistant and been dishonourably discharged for drug abuse. Daughter has transitioned to second son and, along the way, has become a poster person for the rights of the non-heterosexual and has been home schooling Mum about paradigms, philosophy and politics.
The title derives from a gender blind alternative to her and him – hir. There is also he or she – ze. This provides scope for second son (Max) to engage in wordplay, putting the ze into hir. There is something intriguing and, frankly, refreshing about this, but it is all strained through a painful seive composed entirely of hatred, rage and revenge. You wonder whether Max has adopted a new gender to escape the horrors of the American patriarchal ascendency. One of many unsettling thoughts at play here.
Another involves Mum (Paige) and her appalling treatment of her stroke-affected husband (Arnold). Having no time for domestic violence or sustained abuse of any kind does not involve tolerating the abused turning abuser – especially for laughs. Drugging a stroke victim and torturing them is not funny and not a sound way to investigate the many tentacles of abhorrent man-on-woman violence.
Here it is not helped by Ashley Maguire’s performance as Paige – she is brutally unfeeling, loud, stupid and distant. She shows no real spark of maternal fire and absolutely no empathy. This Paige generates less warmth than the interior of a Black Hole.
Dressed like a clown, misshapen by a stroke, drugged into docility, albeit with a feral complexity obvious just below the drug-affected sensibility, Arnold, cross-dressed as though he were a substitute for Maxine turned Max in the family dynamic, also evokes no sympathy. Andy Williams is certainly consistent as Arnold, but the true horror of Arnold’s situation dissolves any ability to watch what he does with engaged interest.
Paige’s treatment of Arnold and the failure of his son, Isaac, who has not been part of the Paige revenge plan, to treat him other than as a living corpse, induces disgust. Isaac vomits so often, and the situation is so truly abhorrent, that any audience member would be forgiven for vomiting zemselves.
Max’s behaviour throughout, smug and assertive, but detached, as if his parents were rats in a school project, betrays a sadism that is perhaps inherited, perhaps sculpted from the pain of his childhood agonies at his father’s hands and the post-Arnold’s-stroke antics of his mother, who refuses to wash or clean, and allows the household to descend into an apocalyptic pool of detritus and garbage.
As Max, Griffyn Gilligan gives a curiously stilted and mannered performance, and he too evokes little, if any, empathy. Some of Gilligan’s moments are compelling, especially when Mac’s dialogue touches on an interesting or novel point, but on the whole Fall does not ensure Gilligan’s talents are focused to best effect. It feels like the performance is schizophrenic when the text doesn’t really support that. A missed opportunity.
The best part of the entire evening is Arthur Darville’s brave, brittle and pained Isaac, another character it is hard to like. Darville channels his inner lost thug with precision, and marries it with a startled incomprehension about what has happened to his family while he has been away in a battle zone, flirting with crystal meth.
The tendrils of fear, self-loathing and ignorance hold onto Darville’s Isaac in a highly believable way. It’s a very complete performance, and the vomiting is visceral.
Even so, Fall’s production just doesn’t work. Perhaps in different hands Hir could find a lustre that is unrelentingly absent here. The physical aspects of the production are all great, with set, lighting and music all of a very high standard. Kudos to Ben Stones, Elliot Griggs and Elena Peña.
Comedy depends upon warmth and understanding. Alienation and revenge are not natural bedfellows for laughter. But the style of the playing, of a production itself, can smooth the pathways to humour. Here, the emphasis on a warped realism, rather than an absurdist lens, produces Theatre of Unrelenting Confrontation. It drains rather than amuses.
Hir may be a masterpiece, but this production shows no signs of that. More metaphor may have helped, but Fall’s production is trapped, and reduced, by hir conception of Hir.