Festival Review: Hard To Be A God

by Jane

This review was originally published on ArtsHub

Hard to Be a God is being presented as the ‘difficult’ work in this year’s Adelaide Festival. In the Hungarian play, three young women under the ‘care’ of Mammy Blue (Annamária Láng) are sold for use in pornography. The roles expected of these women in the making of the video, however, are much more extreme than Mammy Blue had ever expected. Over two hours, we watch as these women, and the men surrounding them, are abused and fall further into a play of sexual exploitation and violence.

Eventually, the work dissolves into a masochistic snuff film that reflects some of the worst of the pornography it tries to criticize: in particular, the women here, too, are not afforded personalities or personhood. On his actors, director Kornél Mundruczó has created little more than two-dimensional vessels in order to expose his audience to gratuitous violence and sexual exploitation.

Appearing at first to have no central figure, Mundruczó then reveals this character to be a Doctor (Zsolt Nagy): an outsider, a time-traveling alien who was sent to observe but by his mission could not interfere. Even here – in a work that attempts to explicitly deal with the vulnerability and abuse of women in sex trafficking in central Europe – women are not afforded the right to tell the story. We are told the story through the lens of the male character: the pain that befell these women is refracted through his pain, but they are not afforded the rights to be central characters of their own stories.

Ultimately, though, the ‘difficulty’ and power of the work is lost as Hard to Be a God becomes increasingly tiresome.

For the Adelaide Festival, Mundruczó has adapted Hard to be a God to translocate the setting to South Australia, which further clouds themes in the work and exposes the flimsy narrative. Mammy Blue has brought her young women to Adelaide for Dr Varjassy Károly’s (Roland Rába) pornography which aims to expose the brutality of his father – a Hungarian refugee who is now a member of Australian parliament – in the rape and murder after pregnancy of his daughter, Károly’s sister.

It is never explained how a truck would transport these women from Europe to Australia, nor how in Australia a sweat shop – sewing, no less, than jeans to be sold to China – in a truck would be a legitimate cover for the sex workers. It is not explained why Károly felt it necessary to create the film in Australia with an entirely Hungarian cast, particularly in the age of internet dissemination. The radical ideologies present in Europe which Mundruczó speaks of in his director’s note is another facet muted by references to Australian parliament.

As these contrivances build up, along with other local references and ‘jokes’ – a pun about Russell Crowe stands out as a particularly poor decision – they each become harder to accept within the world of the play, and as the world we are in becomes less commonsensical, the work becomes more disengaging, and ultimately, dull.

What we are left with is boring theatre which, despite its subject matter, fails to incite. Mundruczó, who is primarily known for his film work, integrates live film through the work: we never see into the next room ourselves, but we watch as this is filmed and projected onto screens around the truck. This highlights the gratuity in Mundruczó’s violence, sexulisation, and sexual violence, and is used as an unusual theatrical technique as a substitution for adequate dramatization.

Staged at the old Clipsal site in Bowden, the work was marketed as being site-specific to the unusual location. Instead, the Adelaide Festival have simply built up a rather traditional theatre space within a large shed. The seating bank looks straight down onto the truck that is the end-on playing space, but other than justification for use of a large space for the truck nothing interesting or different has been done with the venue.

Occasionally the work is saved by the interesting design of the truck, strong performances, and Mundruczó’s integration of song, which at its best creates an intriguing dichotomy between the popular and familiar, and the secret and hidden.

But ultimately, Hard to Be a God becomes hard to watch not because of its difficult subject matter, but because it is an uninteresting, poorly constructed work of theatre. And that is its biggest crime: that audience members can leave a space which promises to expose the European sex trade, and which graphically depicts sexual violence and murder, and have the primary thought on their mind be ‘Which cocktail should I try first at Barrio tonight?’

The Adelaide Festival presents Hard To Be A God. Directed by Kornél Mundruczó; Dramatugs Éva Zabezsinszkij and Viktória Petrányi; Set and Costume Design Márton Ágh; Tehnical Director, Lighting András Élteto; Sound and Video Zoltán Beléyesi / Jábis Renbeczki; Props Gergely Nagy; Costumes Patrick Motondo Stone. With Annamária Láng, Kata Wéber, Diana Magdolna Kiss, Oris Tóth, Roland Rába, Gergely Bánki, László Katona, János Dertzsi, János Szemenyei, and Zsolt Nagy. At the Old Clipsal Site, Bowden, 09/03/12