John Hirsch, was Jewish, gay, Hungarian, Holocaust survivor. Born in 1930, he was a man tormented by having seen his entire family killed while he was a teen, experienced sexually molestation, and, after the war, being a man without country.
It was by sheer serendipity that he wound up being accepted into the country known as “True North Strong and Free.” He was among 1000 refuge children who was brought to Canada as an act of good faith. He settled Winnipeg because he thought it was centrally located and would that would make it safe from potential invasions.
Hirsch, as becomes vividly obvious in Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson’s name sake play HIRSCH, which is getting its world premiere in the Stratford’s Studio Theatre, was a brilliant director and organizer. He was also abrasive, vindictive and tyrannical. To get his desired level of excellence, he would berate actors, stare down Board members, and speak without considering consequences.
Hirsch’s mother once said, “Life is a roller coaster.” Much to the parallel of that phrase, the man’s life had many highs and lows.
He founded the famous Manitoba Theatre Centre. Later in life he worked for CBC-television. In both of those environments he was successful, but continued to conflict with his contemporaries due to his artistic temperament.
For five seasons Hirsch was the Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. He took over at a time when the very existence of the Festival was in doubt. Financial and personnel problems were the highlights of the theatre. Gossip and infighting held sway. Hirsch, though very unpopular, changed all that. In spite of his saving the institution, he was eventually forced to resign.
Hirsch’s, who is recognized as one of the most important figures of Canadian theatre history, succumbed to AIDS in 1989.
Nashman and Thompson’s script is both fascinating and frustrating. By the end of the play we think we know Hirsch well. At least as well as the author’s want us to know him. The crafting style of the show, in which time shifts back and forth, can become confusing. The fact that there is only one actor on stage, who is portraying multiple roles, makes for some bewilderment. Some of the transitional bridges are not clear. In spite of these script flaws, the overall effect is enveloping.
Nashman, is not only one of the co-author, but portrays Hirsch. He does not act as Hirsch, he becomes Hirsch, is Hirsch. Nashman explodes with rage, shows inward struggles, displays signs of depression and self-pity. He is a canvas of driven desires, much success, yet, little joy. He speaks English and Yiddish with ease and intensity. The portrayal is impressive.
As the program says, “John Hirsch was many things—a great artist, a passionate patriot, a self-absorbed drama queen and a visionary in many ways--but without doubt, he was a very special soul.” A viewing of HIRSCH will clearly confirm that image.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: HIRSCH is an impressive story and staging which should be seen at The Festival, as it is the only physical venue where setting and person will clearly merge.