Hard To Be A God
(Dir: Kornél Mundruczó) @ Old Clipsal Site
9:00pm, Sat 10 Mar 2012
I’ve seen some pretty ordinary Festival shows in my time… I’ve even seen some that I’ve downright hated. But never have I left a performance so… angry? disappointed? no – disrespected as I did with Hard To Be A God.
And I had every right to feel disappointed – I’d really built this show up in my mind as being capable of providing the most confrontational and challenging work in this year’s Festival. But, such is the distaste that has been left behind, I can’t even re-read the Festival Guide to try and figure out why I’d thought that… the words are poisoned in my mind now.
In the middle of the former Clipsal site at Bowden stood a shed, lit up like a beacon. It was a surprisingly cool evening, and patrons – it was a full house, I’d heard – shuffled around outside, hands in pockets, waiting for admittance; when the doors creaked open (ominously, in retrospect), they scurried in to grab an optimal position on the slightly raked seating platform. And there was the first issue – with two sides of the audience each bordered by a semi-trailer, it was obvious early on the there may be sightline issues.
Not that it really mattered.
A short movie is shown on each of two video screens – abstract, a man in a boat. A man scurries in, checking back over his shoulder; he draws aside the curtain that forms one of the walls of the forward semi-trailer. Inside is a sewing sweatshop, some bunks; it’s filthy, and it’s inhabited.
Three young women work away under the watchful eye of Mammy Blue; she also prostitutes them, sells them for use in pornography, and deigns to mother them… but only after subjecting them to rustic abortions. Mammy Blue is the interest of the grizzled truck driver who has brought them here (nominally “Adelaide”); there’s a poorly conceived side-plot which implicates a fictitious South Australian politician in the porn industry, and when a “doctor” arrives to hire some of the girls for a porn shoot, it rapidly descends into a snuff movie.
And that’s about the first thirty minutes. The hour or so after that was just purely desensitised violence and debauchery, ending with a utterly pointless bloodbath. Torture, rape, home abortions, murder… and an ill-fated attempt to lighten things up with a musical number. An even iller-fated attempt to give the plot some legitimacy by tacking on a time-travel twist in the tail.
Hard To Be A God was bleak to the point of soullessness. Once inside that shed, absolutely nothing about the production appealed to me; even the potential shock value of the (first) torture scene was given a cold, detached aesthetic, separated from the audience by forcing the performance onto video screens. The pragmatic lambs-to-the-slaughter of the girls was almost trite, with little reason given to the audience to give a shit about these women.
And, not content with being merely viciously misogynistic, Hard To Be A God seems to go out of its way to hateful to everyone… especially the audience.
I’d love to use the word “clumsy” to describe Hard To Be A God… but it just felt too calculated in its callousness. I’d like to say that it felt like a Fringe show on a Festival budget… but Fringe shows typically have infinitely better everything. I wish I had an excuse to say that this work had a misguided power behind it… but there was no power, just detached debasement. I’d love to be able to say that the production was contentious… but it was merely shit.
I hated it. Hated it. And I wasn’t alone: people in the front row had no problems walking out in the middle of a scene. Only about a quarter of the audience that made it to the end of the performance clapped… and even then, there was a distinct reluctance, and most of the applause stopped almost before the actors returned upright from their first bow – it was purely perfunctory politeness, not appreciation, and the second bow was barely feasible. As we exited the shed – ever-so-quietly, as if the hive-mind was telling us to just shut up and keep our head down and we’ll make it out unscathed – I noticed programmes scattered everywhere – there were very few people who wanted their momentos.
I left as quickly as I could, wandering back towards the Entertainment Centre to catch a tram back into the city. On the tram, I saw a group of four people sitting there, looking sullen; they had a Hard To Be A God programme (one of the few that left the premises) poking out from under a jacket. One chap saw me looking at them, and glanced to see my own programme; we looked at each other a second before we both slowly shook our heads before looking away. Even though I desperately wanted to talk to someone about it, to try and figure out Why?, I recognised that sometimes, it’s best to just let the dust settle.
…seriously, though: Why?