Review: Hirsch (at the Firehall) – Take 2

Following the informative and insightful review by my colleague, not to mention several others that have appeared in the last day, is there anything more to say about Hirsch, currently playing at the Firehall for the next few nights?

I couldn’t resist. This is one of those plays that has an incredible intensity such that it stays with you for days afterwards, and I had to talk about it too. John Hirsch, as a director, continually went inside the minds of the characters. Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertold Brecht, tells the incredible suffering caused by war to civilians. Hirsch, in a very moving scene, explains to his actors how they must feel the crushing weight of all the suffering that wars have caused, not to soldiers, but to civilians. But behind that, of course, one cannot help but feel Hirsch’s own civilian suffering as a barely-teenage Holocaust survivor, who suffered the loss (the murders) of his parents, his brother, his grandparents, but somehow himself escaped and subsequently spent the war and the period thereafter with gangs of boys who stole and ran and fled to survive.  

Director Paul Thompson and actor Alon Nashman discuss the legendary John Hirsch.”

Hirsch cycled among cities, including New York where he was an acclaimed director. Did he ever follow the common trend to be psychoanalyzed to assuage his suffering? Perhaps the answer is in his biography. Was Hirsch a tortured soul? It’s hard to believe otherwise. The pain seems unimaginable, even as it is similar to the pain suffered by millions of other survivors. At the same time, Hirsch reveled in his possibly scary persona, often saying, no doubt with some irony given the suffering and discrimination that at least three of these groups have endured, that he was a “member of four mafias — Hungarian, Jewish, Winnipeg and homosexual” (political correctness did not seem to be a concern of his either).

Was Hirsch also a bully? Yes, it would seem so, but was this harshness done in the service of art, as he was well-known for his incredible ability to coax superlative performances out of his actors? Does his confessed domestic abuse (the play features Hirsch’s voice in a letter he wrote to his long-time partner Bryan, justifying the fact that he hit Bryan) in any way obliterate his contribution to Canadian and world culture? Alon Nashman, as a young actor, experienced the harshness of Hirsch, calling himself Hirsch’s “whipping boy” for one particular summer. I commend Nashman for his ability to look beyond his own experience and create a complex and sophisticated, but most definitely not hagiographic, portrait of John (Janos) Hirsch. 

I wondered as I watched this play as to whether anyone could be Hirsch’s equal today. Would it be possible to both be head of CBC Drama and a world-famous theatre director? Does anyone hold to Hirsch’s compelling vision of the necessity of theatre? He never saw theatre as something that could or should make money, but as an essential public service. After all, do zoos, parks, sewers make money?

Among the many plays Hirsch directed was The Dybbuk, a fantastical and gruesome tale based on Yiddish legends. A bride is possessed by a malicious spirit; there is a family curse. Hirsch wanted the actor to convey a wedding and a funeral and intense sex and death all at the same time. How could this be done? Somehow Hirsch succeeded, as the play is widely considered a triumph. Whether it was Chekhov, or Brecht, or Shakespeare, or any of several other acclaimed playwrights, Hirsch somehow entered into the souls of the characters that he sought to bring to life through the vehicles of his actors. The intensity of the feelings Hirsch must have felt in order to do this is hard to comprehend. With Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hirsch could feel the pain of dislocation on being washed up on this island, the jealousy of Caliban, the lust of Ferdinand, and insisted that his actors feel it too. When the characters in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard faced losing everything, Hirsch knew way too well what that meant. 

The house was full for opening night, and it was clear that many of the people present had some sort of personal connection to John Hirsch, even given that he died in 1989. Given how Hirsch influenced a generation of directors and actors, we still feel his impact today.

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