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‘It used to be you could be a mediocre straight white man and be guaranteed a certain amount of success. But now you actually have to improve yourself.’
———– Paige Connor, Hir

Kurt Pimblett & Michael Whalley in Hir. Image: Brett Boardman

There’s an Onion article that I think of often, titled ‘Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show’, that perfectly captures the modern sense of exasperation at the forlorn yet compulsory white pop feminist outrage cycle – many of us are no strangers to reality TV that goes against many fundamental feelings we have as political individuals but continues to dominate our evenings and Twitter feeds. So often it seems that culture likes to hold itself above or apart from critique, placing platitudes in place of any real substantive change or engagement, and even in light of direct calls to action. To then experience Taylor Mac’s Hir, a production that decisively leans in to this world of potential scandal and comes out with something witty and genuinely explorative is in equal parts surprising and delightful. The play premiered in 2015, and ran at Belvoir Street in Sydney in September; helmed by Anthea Williams, faux feminism has never been such fun.

After an extended tour in the marines, Isaac Connor (Michael Whalley) arrives home from the war to find his family home in disarray and its occupants revamped – his father Arnold (Greg Stone) has been reduced to a childlike state by a stroke; his brother (née sister) Max (Kurt Pimblett) now touts facial hair and a radically new sense of masculinity; and his mother Paige (Helen Thomson) is beginning to claw back her life from the vestiges of patriarchy, exploring her personal issues through shadow puppetry and undone dishes.

Michael Whalley, Greg Stone & Helen Thomson in Hir. Image: Brett Boardman

As Paige brings him up to speed on the new order of things – Max’s pronouns (ze in place of he/she and the titular hir in place of him/her), her newfound power as matriarch and secretly dosing her husband with illicit estrogen shakes – Isaac retches into the sink, loudly contending that this isn’t the family he left behind. The heart of the work, though, interrogates whether in fact it always was.

Underneath the shambolic and glitter-strewn surface (the stage is strewn with costume clutter and sparkly ribbons), New York playwright Taylor Mac’s script elevates what could otherwise be yet another kitchen-sink work about a quirky and damaged ensemble to a piece that speaks to the American dream of male power, and how many broken families it has left in its wake. Isaac, dishonourably discharged from his role picking up the exploded body parts of fellow soldiers, expects to be able to similarly piece together the incendiary parts of his own family, and patriarchal domination is never let off the hook for the damage it has wrought both home and abroad. While we never lose the sense of farce, actions that originally seem absurd are revealed to all stem from patriarch Arnold’s limitless sense of entitlement prior to his stroke, revelations that reveal the deft craft of Williams and her team.

Patriarchal domination is never let off the hook for the damage it has wrought both home and abroad… with ridicule saved for the ridiculous.

It’s in this careful balance that this play truly shines, with ridicule saved for the ridiculous. While the production makes light of Paige explaining Max’s transgender identity with half a foot in her mouth, they don’t make light of hir actual transition, nor rely on the cliché that ze transitioned as a result of anything, especially not the trauma they’ve all experienced. Similarly, while Arnold’s occasional bleats of feeble repetition and persistent crotch grabbing drew some of the biggest laughs, Paige’s revelation that she decided to chemically castrate him after his habitual domestic violence escalated into rape hits hard, grounding even her most ridiculous approximation of feminist ideology in a desire to move beyond her abusive and toxic past.

The cast navigate these subtle shifts and turns beautifully, finding a great deal of range in characters that could easily be reduced to caricatures, with their insular world ‘outside of patriarchal influence’ being beautiful fleshed out by the technical aspects of the production; the intrusion of culture, TV and outside influence coming off as suitably jarring in Paige’s ‘safe space’ of a nest. Of special note is Kurt Pimblett, who brings a heart to their role as Max that has been sorely missing from mainstream stages – a role, it’s worth mentioning, that is made all the better for Mac’s insistence that ze be played by a transgender actor.

The cast navigate these subtle shifts and turns beautifully, finding a great deal of range in characters that could easily be reduced to caricatures.

While the production itself seemed clued in to a modern feminism I’m well familiar with (the Sarah Schulman book on radical approaches to consent referenced as a comedic aside was sitting half-finished on my desk at home), and was confident to play with the comfortable and uncomfortable aspects of that feminism, at times it felt like the audience wasn’t quite on the same page. Scenes that felt like they were quite clearly being played as teaching moments or harrowing admissions received laughs to rival the moments of absurdity – we never deeply interrogate Paige’s dosing of her husband, an act that is obviously out of sorts with any conventional feminist thinking, or the uncomfortableness of Max trying to appeal more to an idea of toxic masculinity to appeal to hir brother.

It’s clear that both the work itself and this production of it have engaged with feminist ideas in good faith, and there are moments of resounding success. Paige’s collective-punk meets cool-mum-chic is a tight parody of its rougher edges, and of the fragility of empty hashtagtivism, platitudes and Girl Power for the sake of domination. But there’s always the risk that work like this may well act as somewhat of a ‘magic eye’ puzzle, and I suspect that an audience member who finds all feminist rhetoric absurd would come away with a reading that mocks feminism itself. I also wonder how many people would go on to talk about ‘that trans play’ they’d seen, when in reality calling Hir a trans play is akin to calling Macbeth a play about Birnam Wood – not technically incorrect, but missing the point.

I wonder how many people will go on to talk about ‘that trans play’ they’d seen…not technically incorrect, but missing the point.

If the catalogue of historical feminism were a bad joke, it’s not often that we’re allowed to be in on it. Where so many others have failed, Hir manages to find the room to laugh with the body of knowledge that it lampoons rather than at it, alongside moments of genuine emotion and featuring a trans character whose main arc, refreshingly, isn’t about hir transition. When we so often have to ‘take breaks’ from our politics to enjoy a night out, it’s refreshing to consume something that engages us, not only with its message but with a humour and wit so often absent from feminist media. It’s a promising showing, and shows an awareness and social intelligence that I hope to see performed more regularly in the future.

Hir‘s current run at Belvoir Street has ended. The playscript is available on Kindle or to order from Readings.