Hirsch: Remembering a Canadian Legend

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Theatre Review

By: Tessa Perkins

First published in The Peak.

Would you want someone to tell your story after you’re gone? And if so, who could be trusted with this task?

Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson took on the responsibility of bringing the life of John Hirsch to the stage, paying tribute to this Canadian theatre legend. After an enormously successful premiere at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2012, Hirsch has made its way west to the Firehall Arts Centre.

 

If you weren’t aware of John Hirsch prior to seeing this play, you will certainly know him by the end of it. Nashman plays himself and Hirsch among other characters in this riveting 90-minute performance. Coming in through the back door and walking down the aisle to the stage as he casually addresses the audience, Nashman makes it clear that this is an unconventional show, fitting for an unconventional man.

A Holocaust survivor who was orphaned at age 13, Hirsch was a Hungarian refugee who landed in Canada in 1947. He ended up in Winnipeg, and quickly became involved in the world of theatre, co-creating the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

His fierce determination and strong opinions drove him to succeed as he became a major player in the formative years of the Canada Council, served as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, became the head of CBC Drama, and directed on and off Broadway as well as at Lincoln Centre.

Heavily researched and delicately constructed, Hirsch does not run chronologically, but jumps from his time in Hungary, to the CBC, to Stratford, and to New York. Along the way, Nashman interjects with his own narration, songs, and comments pulling us in and out of the action. While this may sound awkward, it works very well and allows for the play to develop effortlessly while adding some much needed comic relief.

My favourite scene involves Nashman and Hirsch getting into a fight about the way Nashman is telling Hirsch’s story, after which Hirsch storms out of the theatre. “The star of the show just walked out on me,” says Nashman, excusing himself, and from the hall we hear him arguing with Hirsch.

Keeping these roles straight can’t be a small feat for Nashman, but he never falters, and his Hirsch accent and demeanours are flawless. The relationship these two had seems fraught with tension and, as Nashman explains, their first encounter with each other did not go smoothly.

Nashman first met Hirsch when he played Caliban in a production of The Tempest which Hirsch was directing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. Their rehearsals included constructive criticisms such as: “That Sorcerer part was good, but the rest was shit.”

Hirsch is portrayed as an uncompromising, harsh man, but at the same time we get the sense that he deserved respect and could afford to be a bit crass.

Nashman’s performance is a triumph as he presents a nuanced, emotional portrait of this theatrical giant. I left the theatre feeling as though Hirsch was in the room, and I am sure he is somewhere cursing Nashman and Thompson, shouting corrections, and feeling proud of his life’s achievements.

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