Review: Hir (Bush Theatre)

Taylor Mac’s play about a man who returns home from war stars Arthur Darvill

It’s good when a play surprises you, when it isn’t what you assumed. Right? Maybe, maybe not in this case.
Hir is written by Taylor Mac, a radical queer American writer and performer who prefers the gender pronoun ‘judy’ to ‘he’. In it, Isaac – a marine who’s spent three years picking up dismembered body parts before being dishonourably discharged for taking drugs – returns to the rickety starter home his domineering father Arnold made 30 years ago, only to discover the tables have been thoroughly overturned.

Arnold has had a stroke, and his mother Paige enacts revenge for years of domestic abuse – puts him in diapers and dresses, gives him oestrogen milkshakes and leaves him to sleep in a box. In revolting against domestic servitude, the house becomes revolting: she refuses to clean or tidy.

Masculine dominance is overthrown, although there is a new masculine presence: Isaac’s 17-year old sister Maxine is transitioning to Max, demanding to be known as 'ze' not ‘she’ and 'hir' (pronounced 'here') rather than 'her', and longing to live in a "radical fairy commune where they have gender queers who have actual discourse". Still, ze’s been doing a good job of discoursing with hir mom: Paige has become a gender radical herself. "Paradigm shift" is her new catchphrase.

This is all rich, dense stuff. Mac squidges in lucid debates about language as well as gender, housing as well as masculinity, the impact of war as well as the impact of domestic abuse. And it’s often funny in Nadia Fall‘s sprightly production, with Mac's dialogue a snapping thing: now wittily satiric, now nastily viscous.

But here’s the surprise: it also feels curiously lopsided, hugely weighted towards the unreconstructed men of the story. Poor old Isaac, poor old Arnie.

The house is repulsive, in Ben Stones’s thorough, excellent design: below rainbow banners, dirty dishes and clothes and junk piles up. There’s queasy hint here of equating queer lifestyles with, well, chaos and filth. Meanwhile, the precise, strictly enforced pronouns and jargon of Max and Paige’s new world view feel only mocked in Fall’s production, an indulgent pretention to snigger at rather than a potentially valuable reframing of the world.

But the oddest thing is the vast absence of empathy. Isaac’s mom lacks compassion towards her traumatised son and is actively sadistic towards her husband. Yes, we hear how she suffered from his abuse – but we also literally see a sick man abused, in front of us. She warns Isaac against sympathising with him, but the audience can’t help but do so. Their new-found anarchy seems shallow and selfish, concerned with language and appearances, rather than love. We don’t celebrate brutal masculine dominance, sure, but this also sure as hell doesn’t look like an alternative.

Maybe that’s the point – that utopianising about gender is as naïve and doomed to fail as any other paradigm shift? But in this tightly focused play, it also often seems these radical views could be merely a traumatised response to male violence. Which seems bizarrely belittling.

Arthur Darvill gives a taut performance as Isaac; hunched in bewilderment, stress seeming to throb visibly in all his veins. Griffyn Gilligan is a spiky, sneery Max, while still suggesting a well of confused vulnerability beneath. Ashley McGuire is perhaps too sunny as Paige – while she’s always compulsively watchable and successfully suggests dark shadows lurking, her reinvention seems slogan-spouting trite rather truthful.

Mac’s text calls for 'absurd realism': "realistic characters in a realistic situation that is so extreme it’s absurd". It’s a spot-on description, but the effect – under Fall’s direction, at least – is that you’re asked to care about people only to feel suddenly jolted off-track by implausible or monstrous behaviour. At its best, Hir is an ambitious look at a family that represent the wider challenges and changes in America today, but often it just feels like a dysfunctional family drama, bent weirdly out of shape.

Hir runs at the Bush Theatre until 22 July.