AlonNashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Reviewed by James Karas
*** (out of five)
Hirsch is a one-man show now playing at the Studio Theatre in Stratford. It is, of course, about director John Hirsch (1930-1989) who, in addition to being a major presence in Canadian theatre, was also the Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival from 1981 to 1985.
I think it is significant and very praise-worthy that a play about a Canadian director has in fact been produced. For many reasons, there is very little written about Canadian theatre history and directors are generally ignored. A celebration of the life and work of a dead director is infrequent if not unique.
Hirsch has been created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson. Thompson directs and Nashman performs the piece that lasts about one and a half hours. It gives some biographical information about Hirsch and some scenes of him directing several of his major productions.
Hirsch’s background could hardly be more tragic and dramatic. He was born in 1930 in Hungary and lost his entire family in the Holocaust at age 13. He ended up in a refugee camp and eventually came to Winnipeg in 1947 to live with an adoptive family.
The play jumps back and forth in time as it relates scenes from Hirsch’s childhood in Hungary, to his experience in post-war Europe and then as a director in Winnipeg, Toronto, Stratford and elsewhere.
Nashman and Thompson strive to illustrate as much as to tell Hirsch’s life. He seems to have been a hard task-master, a visionary and man who loved the theatre. There are a few memorable lines but this is hardly a play replete with anecdotes from the life of Hirsch. At one time someone commented that Hirsch was his own worst enemy and the lead actor in the play that he was directing topped it with “Not while I am alive.”
Nashman and Thompson highlight Hirsch’s productions of King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, The Tempest and Mother Courage. We do get some insight into bits of the plays and the director.
The approach taken by the two creators is not entirely successful. There are times when it is not entirely clear where we are and whose voice we are hearing. They are too intent on Nashman acting everything out where a more sedate approach may have been more informative and enjoyable. I am not sure if a strictly chronological narrative would have been more appropriate but the jumping back and forth in time certainly did not add anything.
Nashman manages to bear a good resemblance to Hirsch and he does give us a sense of the complex man. Hirsch was Hungarian, Jewish and gay with a nightmarish background to boot. He became a significant Canadian director who has merited a biography (A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson. Véhicule Press, 2011).
The play and the biography are just as much a tribute to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and Canadian theatre as they are to that immigrant from Hungary that made such a significant contribution to both.
Hirsch, created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, opened on July 12 and will run until September 14, 2012 at the Studio Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca