Hans Kesting is not a household name in this country, but anyone who has encountered European super-director Ivo van Hove’s work with his Dutch ensemble Internationaal Theater Amsterdam will be instantly familiar. He looks like he was hacked out of the rock: tough, craggy, manly, and yet there’s something intensely raw and vulnerable about him; nobody can do tragic, wounded, pathetic masculinity like him.
Which is why he was clearly the only possible casting for Van Hove’s adaptation of Édouard Louis’s ‘Who Killed My Father’, the gay French millennial writer’s thoughtful, agonised account of his complicated relationship with his staunchly masculine, staunchly working-class father.
Over the sound of a ghostly electronic choir, Kesting begins the show embodying both the troubled Louis and his dad: the wheezing, ruined physical wreck of the present and the imposing figure of Louis’s childhood, who punched holes in the walls to stop himself punching his family.
You kind of think you know where it’s going: queer kid rails against repressive, repressed parent who made his early life a misery. But if anything ‘Who Killed My Father’ deconstructs that simplistic narrative, which it’s clear Louis once subscribed to. He remembers the bad stuff, in particular the school concert where he and some friends mimed along to Aqua’s ludicrously camp pop smash ‘Barbie Girl’ and his dad simply refused to look at him for the entire time. But as an older man, with his dad now physically laid low by his failing body and cuts to the French welfare state, Louis can’t help but reflect on how his father was a more complicated figure than he ever allowed: his mind cuts back to the time his dad defended him from the police, or took them for an exhilarating drive through the sea, or bought him a deluxe collector’s edition of the movie ‘Titanic’ for his birthday after his initial horror at the request.
It’s a delicately devastating piece about the unknowability and ultimately fragility of our fathers, that uses Louis’s internal rapprochement with his dad as a springboard to launch a devastating fusillade at the French politicians – including Macron and Sarkozy – whose cuts to welfare robbed him of his dignity, forcing him to take a literally backbreaking job a 45km round trip away from his home. The dive into impotant political fury is quite abrupt, and possibly should have been more of the show; but Kesting is an actor who can spin on a dime, and once you realise the ship has altered course, you stick with it.
It’s a small-scale production by Van Hove’s standards, but Hans Kesting is all you need to fill a room, and there’s some beautiful setpieces in there. Van Hove’s productions have always heavily featured music, but usually baby boomer-ish rock. However, ‘Who Killed My Father’ embraces disposable Europop with a similar reverence: Kesting’s performance of ‘Barbie Girl’ is so intense that burns the kitsch away, and leaves a molten core of longing; and version of Snap!’s ‘Rhym Is a Dancer’ is a dream, heady electronic longing set to a glitterball spinning far it threatens to rip the air apart.