Who Killed My Father – Young Vic Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer and director: Ivo van Hove

The absence of a question mark in the title gives a hint that Who Killed My Father is far removed from being a thriller in the Agatha Christie mould. The name of Ivo van Hove on the billing gives another. Returning to the venue of his first London triumph, the 2014 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, the innovative Belgian-born director brings his own adaptation and translation into English of a celebrated autobiographical book by French writer Édouard Louis. The production is staged by the Young Vic in association with Internationaal Theater, Amsterdam.

The play, a 90-minute monologue, at first takes the form of a one-way conversation between a man and his unseen, disabled father. The son is returning from his home in Paris to the industrial town in Northern France where he grew up. He begins to confront the son/father relationship by recalling incidents from his childhood and teenage years and connecting them to his father’s own upbringing.

Dutch actor Hans Kesting is a mesmerising presence as the son; immersed in 1990s pop culture, he craves for his father’s attention by dancing to Barbie Girl, while a glitter ball spits out light around a darkened room and he sobs through the film Titanic over and over again. The son is homosexual, evident from an early age, and this brings about conflict with the father’s ingrained macho outlook; he believes that a man’s masculinity can be judged by the masculinity of his son.

The central relationship is complex and intense, a tangled web of love and loathing. This is not easy to put across to an audience, but van Hove’s total mastery of theatre craft and Kesting’s visceral performance illuminate even the darkest corners. As set and lighting designer, the director’s regular collaborator, Jan Versweyveld, creates an austere room with bare grey walls, into the darkness of which piercing shafts of bright light trespass. The atmosphere is grim as the son’s quest for resolution turns suddenly to outright rage.

In what comes close to being an astonishing coup de théâtre, van Hove switches tracks and turns a play that had been intimate and inward-looking into a forceful political diatribe against the suppression of the French working class. The darkness is lifted and Kesting’s demeanour changes as an introspective soul searcher becomes a public orator. The writer/director’s skill in pulling off this transformation inspires awe.

The play says “J’accuse” eloquently in words that should resonate as strongly on this side of the Channel as in France. Clearly, Who Killed My Father is not a whodunnit. It is ultimately a searing indictment of the known culprits of a crime. This is a sombre play for sombre times.

Runs until 24 September 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

A searing indictment

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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