A family haunted by old wounds and unspoken secrets is such a common theatrical trope that it’s become a cliché. At first glance, Taylor Mac’s 2014 play Hir might fall into this genre, the ‘kitchen-sink drama’: Isaac returns home from the war to find his father Arnold ill, his mother Paige in charge, and his sibling Max (Kurt Pimblett) transformed.
But it’s instantly clear in Anthea Williams’ full-bodied production that Mac’s play is anything but a cliché. Isaac (Michael Whalley) has been dishonourably discharged from the Marines after blowing meth up his butt (really) and now he’s vomiting all over that kitchen sink. His incapacitated father (Greg Stone) is wearing a nightgown, wig, and clown makeup; Paige (Helen Thomson) has been dictating how he looks and dresses, turning him docile by slinging him oestrogen in his medicine cocktail. Max has come out as trans, shifting pronouns from she/her to ze/hir, and Paige has seized the momentum of this metamorphosis with gusto. Now everything in her life is in transition, and she’s giddy – legitimately, scarily, giddy – about each new ‘paradigm shift’.
Paige doesn’t clean anymore – clothes, books, and belongings carpet the living room floor – she’s homeschooling Max, and Arnold is forced to sleep in a box in the living room. His favourite food is banned. In this new regime she’s equal parts Glinda the Good and Gandalf the Grey (who both lay claim to the phrase ‘You have no power here’), terrifying and generous and violent and sunny all at once. Thomson is formidable as Paige. She’s cruel to Arnold, but has suffered great acts of cruelty at his hands. She’s excited and excitable, and she’s terrifyingly complex; rarely are women onstage allowed to be so contradictory, a full spectrum portrait of a person. This is a triumph of a role and a hell of a performance; she’s an eclipse – she’ll cause damage if you look, but you can’t stop looking.
Paige’s new world order is all too much for Isaac, and he finds himself longing for the iron-fist rule of his father. He tries to re-instate Arnold to his former position as patriarch, and no matter how many times Paige tells him not to, he’s determined to clean the house’s overgrown mess. Whalley’s Isaac is all gritted-teeth horror and constant retching. He’s built from the regimen of military training and Arnold’s fists, and the cracks are beginning to show in his composure.
It’s clear that Paige’s extreme takeover of the family home is a response to deep trauma as well as social and marital oppression; by unseating the abusive head of the household and relegating him to the lowest rung of the family ladder, she is trying to create a better mini-society in the home: one that prioritises new ideas, and ambiguity, and many voices. She has a job now. She has a new purpose in Max, who she’s determined is going to bring her into the future. But that’s quite a burden to place on your child.
Hir blows right past identity politics to talk about the structure of family and society. It recognises that patriarchy is flawed and that capitalism has led this striving working class family to believe they should be grateful for a home that is, quite literally, on top of a landfill.
Mac also shows how binary approaches to gender have stifled more than half of the population and pigeon-holed centuries of women and trans people in thankless supporting roles, servicing the needs of straight white men. But Mac is not without sympathy for those who have benefited from this system. There’s real pathos within the character of Arnold; there’s no clear-cut right or wrong in Paige’s treatment of him, much to the play’s benefit, and in Stone’s hands Arthur is crumpled – as much afraid as fearsome.
Kurt Pimblett makes their mainstage debut in Hir and acquits themselves wonderfully. Max is a roiling mass of emotions (Paige blames it, rightly or wrongly, on the ’mones – Max’s testosterone injections). Ze is conflicted when Isaac comes home: should ze revert to old habits, and use hir newfound ‘masculinity’ as a bridge to a new relationship – or risk losing a brother? Pimblett leans into those ‘little brother’ and ‘baby of the family’ stalwarts: long sighs, rolled eyes, and an urge to impress your big brother. If ‘winsome brattiness’ can be a thing, Pimblett is all over it.
It’s also refreshing to see a trans character played by a trans actor on the Belvoir stage a year after Lally Katz’s Back at the Dojo seem to bungle that opportunity. Happily, Mac has stipulated that the character of Max should be played by “someone who was a biological female and now identifies as transgender or gender-queer”. Belvoir has also secured casting agent Lucky Price, a trans male, as an associate artist; the team committed to creating an environment that wouldn’t strand Pimblett as the sole voice for trans insight on the creative team.
Belvoir’s holistic approach to Hir is what allows it to succeed. It’s an outlandish black comedy, but it’s grounded in realism, and Williams cultivates a real sense of empathy for every character. Michael Hankin’s set is the eye of the hurricane, strewn with the detritus of family life, upended and made into an intimidating mess (archly lit by Sian James-Holland), and his costumes reflect and emphasise the transitory, self-conscious identity of each character.
Hir is an unstoppable, overwhelming, genuinely exciting play. It’s a family story for the 21st century, a riot of ideas, a socio-political tragicomedy. It’s unmissable.