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Hir by Taylor Mac at Park Theatre | Review

Expectations are always high when the playwright (Taylor Mac) is designated as an official “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation (affording judy [Mac’s preferred pronoun] funding to the tune of $800k distributed between 2017 and 2021). Originating off-Broadway at Playwright’s Horizons in 2015, Mac’s two-act comedy Hir seems to be constantly in production – with its London premiere at the Bush back in 2017 followed by various international touring festival performances and now, nine years after its inception and seven years after its London debut, it’s enjoying a revival starring Felicity Huffman (Paige) at the Park Theatre until 16th March 2024.

Felicity Huffman. Credit Pamela Reith.
Felicity Huffman. Credit Pamela Reith.

Much of Mac’s work explores collage and cabaret, as well as traditional scripted theatre, and Hir demonstrates a strong grasp of theatrical imagery drawn from disparate sources – which director Steven Kunis’ staging supports. We meet stroke-disabled former patriarch Arnold (Simon Startin) slumped in an easy chair in clown face-paint and pink nightgown, surrounded by chaos and filth. The image is immediately startling and world-building – even though we are also aware that we are in a modern American kitchen-sink setting. The arrival of Paige (Felicity Huffman) who has now taken over the household – controlling the degraded, nappy-wearing Arnold with water spritzes to his face and making ‘shakey-shakes’ laced with oestrogen to promote his docility – offers conflict and complexity on multiple levels. Huffman is every inch the star – watchable and likeable – and her outsize casting in this off-West End show after her morally-disturbing fall from grace (criminally convicted for paying to cheat her daughter into university) reinforces the discomfort with which we should receive the character before us. Do we accept that Paige is justified in her now apparent cruelty towards Arnold as we learn about his past actions? Or is Paige villainous and wrong from inception – manipulating all those around her?

Where Mac’s script is brilliant is its situational comedy and observations. The playwright – before the election of Trump and perhaps only in the early sorties of today’s culture wars – gives the younger child, Max (Thalia Dudek) who is transitioning from Maxine the line: “Gender isn’t radical, it isn’t even progressive. It’s all around us every day”. Mac manages to bring a sense of light-hearted weariness and laughter to, for example, pronoun obsession and calls attention to bigger questions of family, love and care – even for those who are repugnant and for whom a diet of revenge seems more tempting or apt. But where the script seems to revel a little too much in its “genius” is how oratorical some of the speeches are. For a writer who exhorts not to take too much too seriously, it does a fair amount of telling when there is so very much to show.

The elder adult child, Isaac (Steffan Cennydd) arrives from the Afghanistan battlefield to a jarring homecoming into the domestic-strike filth of his home, a gender-transitioning sibling and his father made into a pathetic clown. His view of masculinity – both militaristic and tenderly dignified – is thrown into the mess of Paige’s new construct. Alongside this, we see what happens when Arnold isn’t controlled and alliances shift. Some of this is wonderfully conflicting but other aspects are clunky. The rather literal, if highly dramatic, moments of PTSD that Isaac experiences are somewhat incongruous with the sort of claustrophobic domesticity of the setting. Why does Isaac get a dramatised backstory and flashbacks when the others don’t?

Every actor’s performance in Hir is strong bordering on exceptional and the ideas within it are intriguing – both confounding and funny in places. However, as a play of ideas, it is a little too heavy-handed and doesn’t quite trust its inherent whimsy. Nonetheless, it is haunting and compelling fuel for conversation that might not merely reinforce its audience’s existing perceptions.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

Isaac, the prodigal son, returns from a war zone to discover his family home has been transformed by a domestic revolution. The patriarchy has fallen, and Paige has been liberated from an oppressive marriage. Enlisting her newly-out transgender teenager as an ally, Paige is now on a crusade to tear apart the old regimes. But as they soon realise, annihilating the past doesn’t always free you from it.

In a revival by critically-acclaimed director Steven Kunis, Hir grapples with a family in flux, as they attempt to build a brave new world out of the pieces of the old.

Hir
By Taylor Mac

CREATIVES
WRITER | TAYLOR MAC
DIRECTOR I STEVEN KUNIS
SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER | CECI CALF
LIGHTING DESIGNER | RYAN JOSEPH STAFFORD
SOUND DESIGNER & COMPOSER I ROLY BOTHA
CASTING DIRECTOR | BECKY PARIS
FIGHT DIRECTOR | CLAIRE LLEWELLYN FOR RC-ANNIE
MOVEMENT CONSULTANT | NATASHA HARRISON
VOCAL COACH | SHEREEN IBRAHIM

CAST
PAIGE | FELICITY HUFFMAN (she/her)
ISAAC | STEFFAN CENNYDD (he/him)
MAX | THALÍA DUDEK (they/them)
ARNOLD | SIMON STARTIN (he/him)
UNDERSTUDY ISAAC / ARNOLD I MATTHEW BLANEY (he/him)
UNDERSTUDY MAX I LOTT LEE (he/him)

Plays: Thu 15 Feb – Sat 16 Mar 2024
https://parktheatre.co.uk/

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Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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