Dutch director Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of Édouard Louis’ book Who Killed My Father is dizzying and disorientating, in a way which shines in its best moments, and leaves you in the dark at its worst.
A monologue from a nameless son (Hans Kesting) details a difficult relationship with an abusive, homophobic father, consumed by the pressures of toxic masculinity and weakened by excessive smoking. With the problematic parent on his deathbed, Kesting’s character’s grief is messy and complex. Some of the most profound scenes in this 90-minute production come in the moments of silence, where the actor conveys so much with the burying of his hands in his blue jumper and the shaking of his head as he fights back an emotional response. van Hove manipulates the domestic set from long-term collaborator Jan Verswyveld in a way which makes it both expansive to allow the protagonist space to breathe, and imposing so as to make the monologue intense and emotive.
The design is wider than it is taller, giving the film-like letterbox effect typical of van Hove and his affinity for the cinematic. There are dents in the wall from punches, two windows stage right and a door at the back which all flood light into the room, a stack of mattresses stage left and in the centre, a TV which glows white for the majority of the production.
At some points, however, it changes to a cultural event or product which bookmarks the pair’s fractured relationship: Titanic appears when they form a rare bond over the classic film, coverage of the 9/11 attack is shown at another point. One of the wildest moments is when Kesting dances intensely to Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” not once, but twice. His performance is visceral and captivating.
Yes, there is repetition, and while some of it is jarring (such as his father’s slow walks to the door where, silhouetted against a white light, he hacks his lungs out over several drags of a cigarette), there is a wider point being made. It’s a fear of generational trauma, toxic masculinity, resentment and violence continuing once more, of further humiliation, and of inheriting the inability to declare familial love. In these scenes, van Hove – also adapter and translator – lifts out the most profound ideas from the original work. A ‘broken back’ metaphor is particularly powerful.
Though it is, regrettably, far from perfect. The “you” he addresses throughout is obviously his father, but there are breaks away from this foundation to impersonate and give flashbacks (Kesting’s dancing in front of a spinning disco ball, in a reference to his family’s relationship with music, is a mesmerising light display). It’s to be expected of a solo play, but the transitions between the styles makes it hard to follow at times. It’s clear that it’s intended for dynamism, but the naturalistic tone and backdrop to the play warrants patience above all else, a move to the more sensational scenes chosen at the right time.
As a musing on a strained paternal relationship, it is emotive and affecting, but its expansion outwards into a commentary on the ruling class and successive French presidencies feels the most abrupt. Granted, the point around the cyclical nature of upholding the elite and capitalism is crystal clear, but the transition from paternal grief to political anger is hazy and under-developed. The question of Who Killed My Father is answered, but the way in which a sociopolitical ideology has harmed his father and thus, in a weird way, himself, does not feel so neatly tied up.
We work our way up to the cause, but we could have done with more of a focus on how the culprit’s actions trickle back down to a parental relationship, without the audience having to unpack this all retrospectively given the little time at the end for Kesting’s character to do it with us. The messiness and imperfections of Who Killed My Father? is both its greatest strength and weakness.
Who Killed My Father? is now playing at the Young Vic Theatre until 24 September.
Audio described performances will take place on 14 and 15 September, with a socially distanced performance scheduled for 17 September.
British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted and captioned showings will occur on 21 and 22 September respectively.
Production Images: Jan Verswyveld.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Who Killed My Father?’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.