A family in flux

By Fiona McGregor
Taylor Mac’s ‘HIR’ at Belvoir is not your average kitchen-sink drama
Kurt Pimblett, Greg Stone and Michael Whalley in HIR. Photo by Brett Boardman

HIR, at Sydney’s Belvoir Theatre (until 10 September), is set in the home of a working-class white American family, on the day their eldest son returns from war. Isaac (Michael Whalley) finds his father, Arnold (Greg Stone), incapacitated by a stroke, his mother, Paige (Helen Thomson), in the midst of a protest against cleaning, and his teenage sister, Max (Kurt Pimblett), now a “ze”, in transition.

The house is a mess, dad’s in a dress, mum’s shouting lessons from the queer alphabet soup of fridge magnets. Isaac is not impressed. And so we move through a radical readjustment of middle America.

There are some excellent metaphors – the militaristic mania for order that Isaac needs to impose on the home; his tendency to throw up (I’ve never seen so much stage vomiting). It could be disgust at his sibling’s gender transition or bad musicianship, his father’s transvestism, or perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder. The problem is, we aren’t given much of a chance to take it seriously, as the pitch remains in high ham. Despite this, Whalley creates a sympathetic marine and it is his struggles that are ultimately the most tragic.

I was surprised to see how much playwright Taylor Mac’s work belonged in the lineage of Tennessee Williams, most notably in the character of the over-involved, dominating mother. Yet whereas Williams’ female characters are proactive, Mac’s mother is more reactive: she humiliates her husband with clownish make-up and squirts him with water every time he displeases her. Arnold only speaks coherently when she is out of the house. For the climactic house party, Paige emerges in a gargantuan drag queen outfit, towering over everybody, ridiculed in the end. Williams might have given the character more integrity.

Thomson rises to the role; I suspect the script didn’t give much room to her or director Anthea Williams. If Pimblett were not such a fine actor, Max’s journey would be occluded by the mother. Pimblett, a trans actor, is a revelation, lighting up the stage every second they are on it, even when silent, back turned. Their bumptious, complex, warm, kinetic teenager will stay with me a long time. The director is wonderful with the ensemble vignettes, moving every actor with deft, comic timing.

Michael Hankin has great fun with the set, packing it to the rafters with every bit of domestic detritus you can imagine. The beginning is brilliant.

Mac could have interfered less with his story. Did anyone get all the letters in that queer alphabet? This and the experimentation with trans pronouns sometimes made me feel I was seeing a play for a straight audience, or by a writer not entirely comfortable with the material. True enough, idioms are still being thrashed out. The American idiom itself can be didactic and parochial. With less interference we could have imagined more, felt more, for here are real tragedies: a man incapacitated by a stroke, a child thrown out of home. The ease with which Max’s new gender identity is accepted by the family is refreshing, but hard to fully believe.

HIR arrives here at a time when Australia’s LGBTQI community is being demeaned and traumatised by our government to a degree not seen for decades. It feeds a hunger for stories outside the mainstream that show the chasm between the populace and their federal administrators. Belvoir, like every other theatre company in this country, has long known it needs to diverge from the white male viewpoint.

What HIR tells us most saliently is that Pimblett has arrived, and could play anyone, of any gender, if the industry’s imagination can only keep up. Go see it, just for them.

Fiona McGregor

Fiona McGregor is a Sydney-based author and performance artist. Her books include Suck My Toes and Strange Museums. Her latest novel, Indelible Ink, won the 2011 Age Book of the Year Award.

Kurt Pimblett, Greg Stone and Michael Whalley in HIR. Photo by Brett Boardman

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