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Taylor Mac's toxic drama about a very queer family
Queer New York artist and playwright Taylor Mac’s ‘Hir’ is an artfully nasty comedy centring on a family who’ve been fucked up twice over: first by their abusive, lazy patriarch, and then again by an America in which the rural working class end up on bottom.
Isaac is a case in point. Former ‘Doctor Who’ companion Arthur Darvill plays the disgraced marine who’s just returned from a hopelessly bleak-sounding tour in Afghanistan, picking up body parts. And his already-fractured mind pretty much smashes into pieces when he realises his family home has turned into an explosion of chaos, dirty laundry and queer politics. His father has had a stroke, so his formerly abused wife has turned the tables by gleefully emasculating him with wigs and make-up. And his sibling Max has come out as transgender (the title’s ‘hir’) – Griffyn Gilligan turns in a fine performance as a teenager torn between sulkiness and missionary zeal for the intricacies of gender fluidity.
Ideas of queerness are bandied round with exhilarating energy. Max has a great extended riff on the gender-fluid animals Noah’s Ark forgot: wolves, squid and polyamorous squid. But these ideas are also totally undermined by the play’s determination to use them as punchlines. Isaac is a thinly written foil who meets each new revelation with hammed-up incredulity. Or, even worse, he vomits extravagantly into the kitchen sink.
At best, ‘Hir’ is a study of how an abusive father can be a hurricane whirling in the middle of a living room, contorting every other family into weird shapes as they try to exist alongside him. And of the chaos that reigns when that force is lost.
But by making the father a spent force, a laughable (and pretty offensive) caricature of someone living with brain damage, the play’s balance tips. Ashley McGuire makes a hilarious, believable matriarch-gone-rogue, but I found it hard to chuckle along with the appallingly cruel, feminism-inspired revenge she metes out on her now-disabled husband – her present, visible violence easily outweighs his past sins.
Mac has marshalled all his skill towards her exchanges with her children, full of biting one-liners and violent set-piece arguments, but the same pointed energy is missing when it comes to the piece’s drive. Like a sitcom, we never move beyond the scenario that’s been set in place. And it’s a pretty cruel world to be stuck in, where utopian ideas of queerness and feminism subside into toxic waste. In director Nadia Fall’s tonally uneven, heightened production, there’s much to admire but little to love.