Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hir, Belvoir

The recent death of Sam Shepherd reminded us that he was an incomparable poet of a certain type of American experience - chronicling and mourning the death of the American Midwest Working Class in plays like "Buried Child", "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Lie of the Mind", and illustrating masculinity in crisis as it finds itself increasingly marginalised and forgotten. "Hir" brings that to mind but also asks the question, what were the values behind that culture, and how much should they really be mourned? It tells the story of downtrodden American family who have never quite gotten out of their low-cost "starter home" - Brother Isaac has been away in the middle east collecting body parts, and now returns to what should be normality. But Father Arnold has had a stroke, and mother Paige has taken advantage of her new found freedom to explore a whole new identity and to abandon anything that kept her trapped in the old one (including housework). While sister Maxine has discovered her trans identity and is living as Max, on gender-shifting hormones. It's a play that's compassionate, smart and yet, in the final calculation, merciless as it brings contemporary gender theory right back into the midwest loungeroom where a lot of journeys start.

Taylor Mac is a trans writer/performer who did in fact grow up in a poor town, and this play simultaneously is about triumphing over your origin and what's left behind when you do. It's clear that characters like Paige and Max come from the bones, but Isaac and Arnold are recognisable figures too - the conventional values that are simultaneously crushing and yet so prevalent. Anthea Williams' production captures everything, from Paige's chaotic joy to Max's teen growing pains, a mix of embracing the new and being embarrassed by Mom's over-enthusiasm. Helen Thomson's a virtuoso as Paige, gleeful and funny and strongly resistant to any backsliding out of her new-found freedom. Similarly, Kurt Pimblett as Max is a great Belvoir debut, with a truly sympathetic naivete that's balanced by an awareness that this teenagehood will be transcended shortly. Michael Whalley as the straight-man (in every sense) has a role that largely consists of bewilderment and belligerence, but he manages to keep us believing that Paige and Max would continue to engage with him rather than ignore him. Greg Stone as the impaired Arnold is a performance that asks no sympathy and therefore, when the inner ugliness emerges, ensures he lands effecively. Special mention to the stage crew under Isabella Kerdijk, which has a whole lot of work to do during intermission and does it efficiently.

Michael Handkin's set and costume designs capture with not-quite-realism, making it just that right side of larger than life.

In short, this is modern,relevant, heartbreaking and wildly funny. One of the highlights of the year.

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