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Best of The Fringe 2013


There are moments during a fringe festival that grab you and hold every ounce of your being. This isn’t rare when the festival has over 2,800 shows, but when it happens, it is like one is experiencing the feeling for the first time. The long, hard walk up to Pleasance Forth in the Courtyard is an effort when one has spent the whole day running round a variety of venues.


One of the rules I try to follow when I attend a new show is to see it blind. I rarely find out what/who I am going to see, and this makes it easier for me to sit through it and take the play and performance on its own merits, getting rid of any pre-conceived bias I may have. I say this even though I had chosen to see "Hirsch" because it was a Canadian production and I was intrigued from the offset.


Sitting in Pleasance Forth, the coolness of the space is a rare treat for a fringe venue. The theatre space is almost covered with a red velvet sheet. "Hirsch" is a play about one of the dons of the North American theatre world – a complicated and at times difficult man, John Hirsch, who would go on to become an important force in Canadian theatre.


It was created by director Paul Thompson and performer Alon Nashman for the Stratford Festival. Hirsch’s life is presented with an unflinching honesty and brutal realism; Nashman flashes through the periods of Hirsch’s life with speed but is careful in unpacking this extraordinary man's extraordinary story. It was exhausting to watch Hirsch remain steadfast in his determination despite the negative circumstances.

John Hirsch was born in Hungary and after surviving the Holocaust, though his parents and younger brother István had no lucky escape, he found himself displaced and stateless until in 1947 when the War Orphan Project of the Canadian Jewish Congress brought him to Winnipeg. Hirsch founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre, bringing a new idea of theatre to a country he would adore.


His influence and personality are undeniable, and 20 years after his death, this influence is still felt. Thompson’s direction is crisp and meticulous in its detail. He is bold in the scope that he takes with his direction, bringing so much of Hirsch’s life and experience to the space that one is able to see how brilliantly subtly he can be in a show of this scale.


As Nashman’s ‘Hirsch’ engulfs the stage, the direction offers just a slight glimpse into this iconic theatre director. There is a powerful effortlessness to Nashman’s performances that is bewildering. One has to concentrate on Nashman as he goes through multiple characters, accents, time and space, but one finds oneself unable to take your eyes off him. He neither tries to paint Hirsch as a saint or a villain, but as a man of convictions and a dedication to the theatre that is mesmerising. Trying to pick a moment from ‘Hirsch’ that really stands out to me has been the hardest part. From the use of a stage manager who assists Nashman/Hirsch throughout the play to some of the comments Hirsch himself makes, one is drawn into this story from the offset.

But if I had to pick a moment or two that stood out for me, it came towards the middle/end of the play when Hirsch comments about theatre being treated as equal to education and hospitals – that when making theatre we shouldn’t be concerned with profit. 

"Theatre is one of the few wonders of Western culture that offers a narrative that is passed from generation to generation-keeping tradition and exploring new directions with wild abandon."

The other moment that struck me was during Hirsch's interview with CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), in which he makes a passionate plea for CBC to do what Canadians do best, rather than chasing 'canned laughter' like the Americans or 'costume drama' like the British. For the theatre, one has to only look at the recent assault on the arts by the UK coalition government to fully grasp the danger the community faces.


Theatre is one of the few wonders of Western culture that offers a narrative that is passed from generation to generation, keeping tradition and exploring new directions with wild abandon. Our culture suffers if we fail to give all forms of theatre the space, time, and funds they need to continue to play this essential role in our society. 

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