A page to stage transfer can be difficult, especially when the novel only contains a singular narrative voice or interior monologue that may struggle to find dramatic impact and depth in the theatre. Do you defy the original author and tell the story from the playwright’s perspective instead, dramatising the individual scenes from multiple angles or make it a monologue in which a single actor must recreate the voices and experiences of other characters in memory or fantasy sequences? For Ivo van Hove’s treatment of Édouard Louis’s 2018 book Who Killed My Father, it is the latter, a socio-political one-man show staged at the Young Vic as part of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s European production tour.
van Hove is a superb director of intimacy and tension in confined settings, marshaling the emotional beats of a story that often build to a final devastating and decisive conclusion, particularly in personal relationship between lovers or within families. His recent West End revival of The Human Voice staring Ruth Wilson was a carefully constructed examination of a woman on the edge of destruction, trapped in her box-framed flat and unraveling as the play unfolded. Likewise, van Hove explored the private and layers of relationships in Arthur Miller’s family tragedy A View from the Bridge – still one of his most memorable productions – also at the Young Vic. In Who Killed My Father, van Hove is back in similar territory where masculinity, social expectation and inevitability play out across the life of one family in the last two decades.
And citing these two examples is pertinent because in staging the play, van Hove merges elements from both in the visual language of Who Killed My Father and in the emphasis that van Hove in his role as adapter and director gives to different elements of the story. Designed by regular collaborator Jan Versweyveld, like The Human Voice, this show takes place in a defined box-like structure, a device that instantly gives the contents a screening feel but also a sense of containment, reflected further in the interior which is a single room – not a high-rise flat like The Human Voice but possibly a cell or hospice room that contains the narrative markers of the story; some are sparce furnishings like a bed and a television used to illustrate particular memories while others are more ethereal concepts that speak to a life defined by violence such as the fist-pummeled walls.
Versweyveld has created the perfect canvas in fact onto which van Hove can paint Louis’s story, a set that will contain decades of family life, multiple rooms and conversations as well as the bombastic ebullience of a working class masculinity that becomes as brittle and lifeless as it was once dominant and powerful. These tonal changes are captured through Versweyveld’s cinematographic lighting design – another feature shared with The Human Voice – in which darkness or shadow have as much to contribute as the rich golden hues that flood the stage when the narrator talks about paternal love and the clinical starkness of the greyish white light that even tinges the audience as the manly force of the father is broken and then prevented from ever rising again.
Into that physical space van Hove places a story that has some similarities with Miller’s troubled Carbones. Both involve strong patriarchal figures whose dominance of their families kindles destructive impulses from within and both focus on the intense consequences of that power waning within a small household unit. Louis’s text really looks at cycles of inherited masculinity and the difficulty of breaking out of those traits. It asks some large and generally unanswered questions about where manly ideals come from, how they become ingrained and the methods of transfer between generations. The expectations pressed on a father are then equally expected of a son, gendered norms that are initially oppressive but soon become learned behaviours that perpetuate toxic and harmful myths about what is means to be a man.
van Hove makes this the centrepiece of his play, the complex interaction between two men who are so different yet entirely the same. But, with some initial information given about a violent and abusive grandfather who physically harmed his wife and children, there is a clear pattern of and template for male behaviour that is being passed down the generations here, one which we are left to assume, but cannot be fully certain, that the narrator has broken free from. In telling this story, in which the son is speaking directly to the father, is he accusing or concerned he might be the same as the man who raised him?
The place where hate ends and love begins is murky so while a particular scene may condemn a character entirely, there is complexity across a lifetime of knowing someone that never vindicates them but suggests, for this son and his father at least, that there was more to their relationship than a polarised feeling of hate or appreciation, that day-to-day, fear and love were bound up in each other and with other kinds of responses like shame, guilt, resentment, pride and admiration.
Like Louis’s novel, van Hove retains the non-chronological order of events so the audience is never entirely sure when things occurred and to what extent it suggests patterns of behaviour in either man. Several crucial things appear to happen when the narrator is seven; his father is thrown out by his mother but may be taken back, he performs a pivotal dance sequence to Barbie Girl by Aqua, performing the female role, which his father ignores and there are arguments about what manliness looks like. Lots of other contextual information is hinted at including the father’s movement between different factories, the relative poverty of the family who feel judged by others and a latent homophobia that comes from both parents, although the narrator briefly states he takes male lovers in Paris as an adult.
This blurring of time is there to create an impression rather than a distinct blow-by-blow account of family life, and often the information conveyed is contradictory. The notion of love and hate are at the heart of this complexity and there are many stories about the father’s verbal and mental abuse of his children using silence and insults as a means of shaping his boy into the man he needs to be, occasionally referencing neighbours and outsiders who compound these ideals. Yet there is real love for his father as well, a man who rejects his son’s birthday present idea but buys it anyway and then goes to some effort to feed the boy’s interest afterwards. The audience never quite knows whether the father is the monster we are presented with – and crucially he is barely personified until quite some way into the play. Or is the narrator only remembering particularly high and low moments that shaped him rather than the less notable constants of day-to-day life?
And what of the women who barely seem to feature in this story at all. The narrator’s mother is generally referred to as a rather saintly figure which is common in domestic violence households where children want to protect and save their mother from harm. But in the few scenes she appears in, the mother either nags her son or uses gossipy neighbours as a reason to chastise her son for publicly exhibiting homosexual behaviour, something she is embarrassed by. Yet, there the narrator suggests no resentment of his mother or takes time to reflect on her as a real character, exploring neither the relationship she had with his father, her decision to take him back or, crucially, what happens to her at the end of this story. It is also very late in the play that our storyteller mentions a couple of sisters, people not known about before or afterwards who have been entirely excised from this history and from the scenarios the audience has been asked to imagine. Louis and van Hove leave this information hanging, but where are and who are the women in this story?
Taking place in the last twenty years, music has quite an important function in Who Killed My Father, particularly pop and dance that continually reference a surrounding popular culture that so often defines van Hove’s productions. Aqua appear a number of times as the crucial Barbie Girl dance routine recurs in several roots of memory but there is other music too, particularly Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On which is relevant to and underscores a section about paternal love, and there is a beautiful spinning disco ball scene early on as the narrator embraces dance as a means of expression. Versweyveld creates a vortex of swirling light that is equally beautiful and disorientating in keeping with the themes of this piece.
But Who Killed My Father does come a little unstuck in its final 10-minutes with a scene of directed political rage that breaks free of the intimate and becomes a tirade against French health policy. Violence against the body as an act of State is the theme and while there is some useful connection here with the notion of bodily attack committed by men in their own homes, the withdrawal of health benefits and declassification of conditions feels suddenly out of place in what has been a tightly focused domestic story. The switch from the effects of the father in that space to the State’s betrayal of its citizens is too sudden and even as the narrator quite literally steps out of his box to berate a series of male French ministers and Presidents who perpetrated these widescale betrayals and attacks on the working classes, the audience loses some sense of what this play has been about – the individual, complicated connection between father and son trapped in their own social roles.
Appearing recently as Menelaus in Age of Rage at the Barbican, regular collaborator Hans Kesting is tremendous in the leading role, holding the audience in thrall for the show’s entire 90-minute running time. This is a monologue that demands considerable stamina and control, not giving too much away too soon and managing the rhythm of a tale that generates plenty of tension. Its structure seems fluid as memories and thoughts overlay one another but it demands a great deal from Kesting who rises to meet the challenge, drawing the audience in with impressive characterisation yet holding them at arms length to maintain the ambiguities of the central perspective and its protagonist.
It is always exciting seeing van Hove’s work for the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam with its cinematic vision encapsulated in theatrical form. Here in Who Killed My Father there is both intimacy and scale that neatly capture the contradictions and complexities of loving a family member. The title of this work may not be a question but it certainly makes a statement.