Hir review: Taylor Mac captures a family in transition (Belvoir, Sydney)

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The patriarchy has fallen!

Well, at least in a living room and kitchen, in the corner of working class, suburban USA where playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac has set judy’s 2014 play, Hir. 

But what rises in the place of a fallen patriarchy? How does the world restructure itself and transition when power structures are torn apart, and the people previously subject to tyrannical rule unexpectedly gain agency?

These are the massive political questions at the centre of Mac’s play, which takes the rather surprising form of a domestic drama, laced with pitch-black comedy. It’s not really what you could describe as kitchen-sink drama, but there’s definitely a kitchen sink in there.

One morning Isaac (Michael Whalley), a young soldier whose duties involve retrieving the body parts of dead soldiers who’ve been blown apart, returns to his family home. He feels he’s walking back into the ordered world where he’ll be at home, but discovers his home looking like small bomb has gone off — or perhaps a drag queen has recently exploded and spilled its glittery guts all over the place.

There are sparkly ornaments hanging everywhere and clothing strewn across the floor. There’s furniture blocking the front door and brightly coloured plastic fish stuck to the walls.

But the biggest shock is that Isaac’s abusive, macho father Arnold (Greg Stone) is wearing a dress and bright face-paint, looking somewhere between clown and drag queen. Arnold has had a serious stroke while Isaac has been away, and his mother Paige (Helen Thomson) has found a place at the head of the family. She’s dressed Arnold that way, and affords the now disabled man about the same level of dignity he had given her while he was in charge. She’s also decided to stop performing any domestic duties that had been previously assigned to her as a woman.

Paige makes the choices now, alongside Isaac’s teenage sibling Max, who came out as a trans man while Isaac was away, and is currently taking testosterone. Max’s eyes are opening up to more radical ways of living, and Paige is embracing the same world of progressive politics, art and genderless pronouns like “hir” in her own clumsy but hugely enthusiastic way.

Paige is an extraordinary character, emerging from a downtrodden position and blossoming with her newfound power. She’s ferocious, sometimes compassionate, and extremely dangerous as she and Max build a new family unit diametrically opposed to the one instigated by Arnold.

Helen Thomson delivers one of the performances of the year as Paige in this production, directed with a superb sense of balance by Anthea Williams. There are moments when the situation of the characters reaches towards the absurd, but the action and form is well-grounded in fairly conventional realism. That realism may look effortlessly executed, but there’s a clear discipline to Williams’ approach.

Thomson is irresistibly relentless with an extraordinary knack for dark comedy –she narrates the best therapeutic shadow puppet show you’ve ever seen — and manages to find all of the dramatic nuance underlying the play’s bleakest and funniest moments.

It’s this balance that’s essential to Mac’s play, which is surprisingly neutral in its treatment of political conflict. Its provocations certainly come from a socially and politically radical perspective — Mac’s preferred gender pronoun is not he, she, or even hir, but “judy” — but it’s a play full of deeply flawed characters, none of whom articulates a consistent political position that could be considered Mac’s own.

Every member of this family is pretty awful and cruel at some point, but there’s space to feel an usual sympathy for all of them as they struggle with the reality of a suddenly changed world. Mac’s dialogue is sharp and sparkling, while the relationships drawn between the four family members evolve in exceedingly complex ways.

Although it’s Thomson who gets the showiest role as Paige, all four actors on stage are excellent, and there’s a real sense of history between them all. Kurt Pimblett makes his Belvoir debut as Max, a role that’s difficult for its capriciousness. Pimblett succeeds beautifully in tracing the character’s sudden evolution as his big brother returns home.

Michael Whalley, also in his Belvoir debut, impresses as Isaac, who seeks to re-establish some sense of conventional order, while Greg Stone makes a huge impact in the mostly silent role of Arnold. You get the impression that he was once a powerful and intimidating man, but his emasculation is near complete.

There’s a total unity in this production between the text, Williams’ direction, and the luridly lavish set and costume design by Michael Hankin. The detail in the set is extraordinary, and you can almost smell the mustiness from the piles of clothes left lying about for too long.

There are few productions that manage to be both as entertaining and thought-provoking as Belvoir’s Hir. It’s a rare play that can leave you both completely satisfied and with meaty questions to chew over.

Hir is at Belvoir until September 10.

Featured image by Brett Boardman

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