Sydney in January, Perth in Feb, and now Adelaide in March. I’m here for the final week of the last biennial Adelaide Festival. From next year, it will be an annual event. Let’s hope incoming artistic director David Sefton can muster as exciting a range of international fare as Paul Grabowsky has in this year’s program. Last night, I caught Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s Hard to be a God, an alarming descent into the nightmare of human trafficking and illegal prostitution in Eastern Europe.
Hard to be a God, directed by Kornel Mundruczo, Performed by Annamaria Lang, Kata Weber, Diana Magdolna Kiss, Orsi Toth, Roland Raba, Gergely Banki, Laszlo Katona, Janos Derzsi, Janos Szemenyei, and Zsolt Nagy, Dramaturg Viktoria Petranyi, Set and Costume Design Marton Agh, Music Janos Szemenyei, Lighting Andreas Elteto, Sound and Video, Zoltan Belenyesi and Janos Rembeczi. Old Clipsal Site, Adelaide, Until March 14.
Kornel Mundruczo’s Hard to be a God feeds on a dark synergy between venue and performance. The Hungarian director plunges us into a sordid underworld of human trafficking and sexual slavery. The show is staged on the back of a truck, inside a vast abandoned warehouse at the Old Clipsal Site. To get there, you have to walk through a long block of deserted industrial park, all corrugated iron and cyclone fencing and empty parking lots. The architecture is ugly, comfortless, with no human sense of scale. It puts you on edge. Even before arriving, I got the sense of having taken a wrong turn late at night, of being extruded from the easy embrace of inner suburbia and thrust into a dangerous, forsaken place.
It starts with a man, a man with a bloodied hand, beckoning us into the warehouse in Hungarian. The cause of his violence, he assures us, will be revealed. Taking our seats before a semi-trailer, the canvas is pulled back to unveil what looks like a sweat-shop, with racks upon racks of inferior denim garments, some industrial sewing machines. The deceit is half-hearted, the real business evident in the shadows – a red light over squalid bedding.
Human trafficking and illegal prostitution in Europe have been tackled onstage before. The last time I saw the subject sharply realized was in Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravanserail, where it formed one tile in a global mosaic of displacement and migration. Here, the focus is narrow and unflinching. Peering inside the truck exposes an enclosed world; the effect is startling, like a child picking up a rock in the backyard to watch slaters and worms wriggling underneath … although, given what happens in Hard to be a God, our voyeurism is far from innocent.
From the outset, our focus is drawn to the charismatic madame, Mammy Blue (Annamaria Lang). Lang plays her with a shallow charisma, Mammy’s urbane persona and maternalistic airs disguising, for a while, the cruel and narcissistic woman underneath. The show isn’t short on horrors, and one of the most disturbing is the scene where Mammy, in a sickening parody of maternal love, ruthlessly manipulates a prostitute into an unwilling grave.
To the men who abuse them, the prostitutes are expendable, barely human. Hard to be a God makes their actions more monstrous by rendering to them the dignity they deny their victims. No character in this false family lacks a human face, not even the psychotic ringleader Karoly (Roland Raba), whose fanatical hatred drives much of the violence.
The performances spring from a baseline of low-key, naturalistic detail, highly effective in drawing the audience into the intimate, cult-like milieu. From the subtle vulnerabilities of the prostitutes and the masks they wear to conceal them, to the detached torment of the doctor (Zsolt Nagy) who fails to look after them and eventually emerges as an avenging angel, we become complicit in the story.
Although the realistic weave can fray into contrivance to dissipating effect, its regular and deliberate rupture creates some of the show’s most powerful moments. The cast often breaks into song; and some performance is filmed live, including depraved acts that occur in what is more or less a rape dungeon. Occasionally both techniques converge to amplify traumatic action – in one horrific contrast, a scene of hard-core sadism plays off against an upbeat sing-a-long to Bacharach’s What The World Needs Now Is Love.
It’s perilously close to becoming Sex Slavery: The Musical, but the use of music is wonderfully cunning: averting melodrama here, enhancing desolation there, introducing comic foibles with a natty synthpop chorus, or enshrining tragedy through folk music sung in lush four part harmony.
The piece ends as it begins, with the figure of the doctor, the helpless observer forced to action. A strong connection between him and the passive audience is no doubt meant to be drawn, but I’m unconvinced such an obvious device was necessary. A nagging sense of complicity is physically built into the performance, and in encouraging empathy with all players, its exploration of evil is deeply troubling.
I left the Hungarians with my imagination cruelled, haunted by the fact that when monsters have been cut down to human size, they’re more dangerous, less easily understood, and harder to defeat. I strode warily toward the last tram, my pace quickening in the night.